Culinary Arts

Breaking Down USDA Meat Grades: Difference Between Prime, Choice, Select Meat Grades

Written by MasterClass

Apr 29, 2019 • 4 min read

Once you’ve decided on what cut of meat you want to buy, a whole new problem opens up: beef grades. Do they really matter? And what do they mean, anyway? Here’s the beef on the beef.

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How Is Meat Quality Graded in America?

Beef grading is a voluntary, subjective process whereby meat packers pay the USDA to have their beef graded. The two most important factors inspectors look at when choosing quality grades are the age of the cattle at slaughter (determined by the appearance of the vertebrae) and the amount of marbling (determined by the appearance of the ribeye). While the amount of marbling is the most important factor in determining a quality grading, the color of the fat plays a role as well: white fat is preferred over yellow fat, which usually comes from pasture-raised cattle.

Marbling—the white fatty connective tissue often found within muscles (intramuscular fat)—generally makes cuts feel tender rather than tough, since it melts when heated. Marbling alone, however, does not necessarily guarantee flavorful meat. The amount of marbling is thought to be responsible for about one-third of meat quality; other factors include the amount of exercise and quality of diet, the age, and other conditions, at slaughter, the breed, and the aging and storage of the meat.

A Brief History of Meat Grading in the U.S.

The United States Department of Agriculture has graded beef quality since 1927, when the USDA developed the Prime grade to distinguish well-marbled, fine-textured cuts from young cows. For 30 years, this grading was based on the meat from purebred Angus and Hereford cattle, British breeds with a lot of fat. In the 1960s and ’70s, Americans started to prefer leaner cuts, so in 1965 and 1975 the USDA reduced its marbling requirements for its highest grades.

Most beef in the U.S. comes from cattle that are 15 to 24 months of age and grain finished, meaning they were fed a grain diet during the last 4 to 8 months of their lives. Grade A meat comes from cattle that were 9 to 30 months of age at the time of slaughter, versus grade E meat, which accounts for 8-year-old cattle. Young cattle with sufficient marbling are given USDA Prime, Choice, or Select grades, while Standard and Commercial grades are usually sold ungraded, and the lowest grades—Utility, Cutter, and Canner—are used to make processed beef products.

What Are the Different Grades of Beef?

  • Prime Beef: The highest grade of beef in the U.S., Prime beef with abundant marbling contains about 8 to 13 percent fat and comes from young cattle (A or B maturity). Less than 2 percent of U.S. meat is graded Prime.
  • Choice Beef: Widely available, meat from Choice cattle is less well-marbled than Prime beef and contains about 4 to 10 percent fat and comes from young (A or B maturity) cattle. Angus beef, the most popular breed in the U.S., averages a Choice grade.
  • Select Beef: Easily found at grocery stores, choice beef is 2 to 4 percent fat and leaner than higher grades. It has slight marbling and comes from young cattle (A maturity).

How Do Meat Grades Differ In Different Parts of the World?

Many large beef-consuming and producing countries, such as France, India, Brazil, and Italy, lack a mass-market beef-grading system. Countries that do grade their beef, such as Japan, Korea, and Australia, typically use marbling as a measure of quality like America.

In Japan, the highest quality beef can have up to 40 percent marbling and is sold in thin cuts ideal for dipping in broth, such as in shabu shabu. The Japanese Meat Grading Association looks at marbling, meat color (brightness), meat firmness, and fat color. Each of those four quality markers is rated on a 1 to 5 scale. The overall quality score is equal to the lowest-scoring of the three items, with 40 percent of marketed beef in Japan receiving a grade of 3. The meat is stamped with the quality store and the yield score A, B, or C. (The yield score refers to the amount of salable meat on a beef carcass.) Korea has a similar system, grading its beef based on color, texture, carcass maturity, fat color, marbling. There are four grades: 1+ (best), 1, 2, and 3 (worst).

In Australia, the third largest beef exporter (after India and Brazil), two agencies work together to grade beef with two different ways of ranking marbling. AUS-MEAT assigns beef a score of 100 (no intramuscular fat) to 1190 (extreme amounts of fat), and also inspects color, fat depth, carcass weight and maturity, and meat pH. Meat Standards Australia grades marbling on a 0 to 9 scale.

What Is the Purpose of Grading Meat?

Meat grading was developed in the U.S. as a marketing tool: the USDA grade system was developed in the 1920s due to an agricultural recession. Cattle farmers hoped that the grading system would increase demand for the fatty meat that came from purebred, corn-fed cattle. The system has evolved with consumer preferences and doesn’t guarantee how much you’ll enjoy a given cut of beef. Grass-fed beef, for example, typically exhibits less marbling and is therefore always ranking low. If you’re looking for a well-marbled beef cut at a butcher shop or grocery store, trust your eyes first—the visual evidence is there in front of you, in the form of streaks of fat.