In most American supermarkets (not Safeway or Albertson's anymore because they are pushing their own brandings of Rancher's Reserve and Blue Ribbon), beef is sold with a USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) Quality Grade. Most people know that USDA Prime is the best (and most expensive) beef you can buy, and it is somewhat rare to find. USDA Choice and Select grades are common in supermarkets with Select being the cheaper option. But, what do the grades mean and how are they determined? I'll try to explain...
In the United States, all beef is inspected for safety by the USDA. The USDA also provides grading services that grade beef according to quality and/or yield. Both types of grading are optional and costs the producer (rancher) some money to pay for the USDA grader to provide a grade. We'll look at quality grades in this article since these are the most influential to the consumer. Two factors are used when the USDA grades beef for quality: physiological maturity and marbling.
The maturity of a beef carcass is determined by examining the bones and the color and texture of the ribeye muscle at the 12th rib. Examining the ossification (when cartilage turns into bone) of the backbone is one of the techniques used to help determine maturity. Each vertebrae has a bit of cartilage on top in young animals. This cartilage slowly turns into bone and generally begins to ossify from the rump and gradually proceeds up the back toward the head as the cattle matures. The level of ossification and area of effect helps to determine the age of the carcass. In addition, the shape and color of the ribs provides more information about the age of the animal. A very young rib will be red, narrow, and oval-shaped. Older animals will have ribs that are greyer in color, wider, and flatter.
In addition to looking at the bone structures, the lean tissue of the ribeye will help determine the physiological maturity of the animal. In a young animal, the muscle will be a light pink-red tone and the texture will be fine. While the animal matures, the lean tissue will become darker in color and more coarse.
Maturity is rated into five groups labeled from A to E (where A is the youngest). For most cattle, the age groups are approximately (some variation from sex to sex): A - A < 30 months B - 30 months < B < 42 months C - 42 months < C < 72 months D - 72 months < D < 96 months E - 96 months < E
Marbling is the amount of fat that is distributed within a muscle (not surrounding the muscle). When determining marbling of a carcass, the quantity and distribution of fat in the ribeye at the 12th rib is examined. Beef with higher amounts of marbling usually produce more tender, flavorful, and juicy cuts. How maturity and marbling relate to determine quality grade is shown in the table below.
Depending on your city, it can be very hard to find Prime grade beef. New York or SF, no problem. Elsewhere...tricky as most of it is sold to resturaunts. Luckily I live in Sacramento which for some reason I haven't really figured out yet has "David Berkley Fine Wines and Specialty Foods" (http://www.beyondgourmet.com/food/david.html).
Anyway, the best options I found for obtaining prime:
1. A butcher can usually order it for you, at least sometimes and in some cuts.
2. Some high grade steakhouses will sell their beef to you; which is nice because it's usually been dry aged already.
3. You can order it shipped overnight (at fabulous cost) from http://www.lobels.com/ .
Although there are of course ranges within all the grades. Some choice is very close to prime. Usually the grocery store custom brands and are choice, and pretty decent choice at that. There can be variety though; always check out what you buy.
Is it worth it? If you have trouble finding decent choice grade beef, need consistency, or have one particular dinner that you want to "knock out of the park" then I'd say yes. But if you have a good butcher and can ask him/her for the best they've got, that's going to be pretty close (both in price and quality). I've found some very good choice grade beef.
I grew up on a farm ( now do puters and ITS engineering), and from my experience, the best cuts are the ones you grow yourself. You know what chemicals (or not) the cattle have been fed, and if you finish the last 2 months before butchering with a diet rich in corn, you will have the best beef you can hope to eat (not everyone has a place to raise a cow though, sorry).
Try it if you never have, you won't ever eant to go back.
Most large cities have wholesale butcher shops that service the restaraunt industry. You can often buy prime cuts at prices comparable to choice in the local supermarked. The catch is you have to buy 12-15 pounds of meat at a time. However, this is still quite a deal if you can round up a few friends to go in on it with you. For example, Puritan Beef Co, in Boston will sell prime filet for 8.79/lb, but only in 12-15 lb blocks. Oh, and they will be happy to cut and trim the meat to any desired taste.
Perhaps I am missing something, but I would assume "USDA Organic" would be a higher quality grade than any non-organic grades due to the lack of pesticides, hormones and other dysfunction causing elements. How does the "organic" rating sit in relation to "quality grades"? Are the even in the same scale? Are they two different scales, such as there being "USDA Organic Prime"?
FYI for most people in the world who appreciate food and cooking, USDA graded meat is *not* a quality product. In fact, people with a real experience of meat will definitely stay away from USDA meat, because the label carries the promise of safety and constant quality levels *in the context of industrial production*.
This context has important implications if you are looking for an absolute or personal rating of quality and safety. (For example: "USDA quality" seems to mean "fat" and "soft" and is mostly a North American aquired taste, as world obesity statistics show. As for "USDA safety" it seems to mean: "will not make you sick from in the next 24 hours" but has little concern for epidemiology, long term effects of hormonal and antbiotic supplements etc.)
So in a way, it's like McDonalds: you know what you will get, and you are guaranteed a certain level of quality... but would you say that they serve "quality food"?
A long a detailed article is available here that may explain a bit more: http://www.mercola.com/2002/apr/17/cattle1.htm
PS: the comment applies to US production of pretty much anything. It is quite efficient and prolific... but quite bad in absolute value. Beef. Philosophy. Chicken. Graduates. Music. Movies. Software. Cars... Nobody would really pick US products as "the best" for any of these... but they are cheap and predictable. That is *a* quality. It's not *quality*, at least for most of us.
The term 'Organic' actually has no relation to quality of the meat. From what I've read there are no USDA guidelines on what can be called 'Organic' or not.
Of course how a piece of food can be considered 'inorganic' is beyond me as they are all made of meat and not, say, iron.
Organic does not refer to quality in the usual measures of age or fat, but the quality of the environment that produces the meat.
The term often refers to standards regulated by the government of the state of California, as they have laws regulating when a product may be labeled "organic". These laws can include specifications for things like how long it's been since pesticides or hormones have been used on a farm.
You may also be interested in knowing whether a product is the result of genetic engineering, as this is generally banned from import in Europe, and the environmental effects of genetic engineering are still seen as grim... and effects on humans (aside from engineering more deadly contagions) are largely unknown.
Concerning Europe's ban on geneticlly altered products please understand that it is done primarily as an excuse to protect their farmers against imports. They do that a lot, that was how ISO 9000 standards first came on te scene, as a non-tariff trade barrier. As for the safety of genetically altered foods you will have to make up your mind based on some other crieria.
re: genetically engineered foods or "frankenfoods" It should be pointed out that very few people other than hunters and people who forage in the wild are eating anything other than genetically engineered foods...that's all animal and plant husbandry IS is the practice of genetic engineering on a macro, inconsistent, and inefficient level.
I want to know WHICH genes (and therefore what proteins) are being expressed if they're not part of the original organism, past that it's just hysteria.
Good article! I have a question though on a "new" rating I've seen in the markets here in the midwest "Certified Angus Beef". The advertisments (and there are quite a few of them by various people) all seem to imply that this is some sign of quality. Indeed, I've even heard a chef at a local restaurant (and a good one!) indicate that all their meat is "Certified Angus" and that its just a step below Prime, but above Choice.
Isn't this all just a marketing scam? I mean, aren't they really only certifing that the meat is from a Black Angus cow? Has anyone done any studies to show that Black Angus cows produce better meat? Isn't it more important on the marbling, age, dry-aging or wet cryovac aging process used, etc. etc?
Anyway, anyone know what all this madness about "Certified Angus" is all about?
Joined: 10 May 2005 Posts: 1648 Location: Austin, TX (USA)
Posted: Sat Oct 15, 2005 6:10 pm Post subject:
Certified Angus Beef (CAB) is a branding registered with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). (http://www.ams.usda.gov/lsg/certprog/certbeef.htm. It is one of 28 branding programs for Angus beef alone. When you get CAB beef you know:
1. Came from a Black Angus (a breed of cattle)
2. Quality is either USDA Prime or upper 2/3 Choice
3. Young cattle (A Maturity)
And some other requirements with respect to hump size, quality, etc.
Naturally, beef preference is up the diner, but many people believe that Angus beef is more tender and flavorful than other varieties. A lot of it is marketing (for example Burger King's Angus Burger) and hype, but if you're looking for Angus beef, then looking for the Certified Angus Beef brand ensures you will get what you are looking for.
I really feel sorry for the folks who live away from the main agricultural parts of the country...or at least away from where they know how to feed cattle.
I grew up in the heartland where beef is king and Vegitarian is a Native American word for "Bad Hunter". My parent's home is right around the corner from a neighborhood meat market which buys its sides of beef from a little company called "Omaha Steaks" They custom grind their hamburger from the same sides.
I now find myself living in a part of the country where beef gets fed Cotton waste and prickley-pears. Thank heaven for Costco. (Julia Child bought her meat at Costco...need I say more?).
There are grades of beef with more rmarbling than USDA Prime. The famous Japanese Kobe beef is one such grade.
Black Angus beef is indeed wonderful meat, however, advertising aside, most people won't tell the difference between Angus, Hereford or "Black Baldie" (a Hereford/Angus cross) if the cattle come out of the same feedlot, and are of the same USDA grade.
Now, if, as a previous poster said, this is meat from a steer which was raised by a 4-H kid, there you will have some really good beef, breed of steer notwithstanding.
Every year, the steak houses in Omaha have a bidding war for the AkSarBen 4-H cattle show grand champion steer. The money goes to the 4-H member who raised the steer. Often the bidding is high enough that the kid can pay for his or her college education from the proceeds.
If you are ever in Omaha, Check out Mr. C's, Angies, The Venice Inn or literally any of the home grown steak houses. You won't be disappointed, however, don't be supprised when the waitress asks if you want Spaghetti, Angle Hair or Mostacolli with your meal. Many of the local steak houses were founded and are still run by Italian families.