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The Different Grades Of USDA Beef And How They Affect The Quality Of Cuts of Meat

The Different Grades Of USDA Beef And How They Affect The Quality Of Cuts of Meat

Table of Contents

Are you curious to learn about the different grades of beef and how they affect the quality of cuts? Well, here’s a fact: The USDA has an official way of classifying different grade levels for beef.

In this article, we will explore these various grades in detail while examining how they influence the eating experience of beef products. With this information, consumers can make more knowledgeable choices when selecting their meats.

So let’s get started by exploring what goes into grading beef and its impact on the quality of cuts!

Key Takeaways

  • The USDA has an official grading system for beef that takes into consideration factors such as marbling, maturity, and skeletal ossification.
  • Prime grade is the top-quality beef available with excellent flavor, juiciness, and tenderness.
  • Choice grade offers a desirable balance between leanness and palatability, while Select grade has slightly less fat marbling than higher grades.
  • Standard to Canner grades are lower in quality than Prime/Choice but can still be used for certain dishes like stewing/mincing if cooked properly at low temperatures over a prolonged period of time.

Understanding Beef Quality Grades

The USDA sets the standards for eight different grades of beef, ranging from Prime Grade to Canner Grade, based on factors such as marbling, maturity, and skeletal ossification.

Prime Grade

Prime-grade beef is the highest quality beef available and has been awarded by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). This grade of beef is highly sought after for its excellent flavor, juiciness, and tenderness.

Prime-grade meats are generally heavily marbled with intramuscular fat. The most desirable steaks, roasts, and ground meats are all classified as Prime under USDA grading standards. It’s not uncommon for high-end restaurants to select only the best cuts of Prime grade beef due to its exceptional quality.

Butcher shops may also rely on these top grades when creating hand-crafted cuts for their customers. While it can be difficult to find prime-grade meat at your local butcher or grocery store, some online stores will specialize in providing this premium product direct-to-consumer from ranchers who raise cattle specifically for their superior quality that can meet USDA standards for prime meat qualities.

Choice Grade

Choice-grade beef is a high-quality, flavorful cut of meat. It has more marbling than the lower grades, giving it excellent tenderness and succulence. The marbling in Choice Grade gives it better juiciness and flavor as compared to other grades, such as Select or Standard, making it a desirable option for consumers.

Additionally, Choice Grade reflects physiological maturity – meaning that the cattle were not too young nor too old when slaughtered – which also helps in optimizing its eating quality. The USDA characterizes Choice Grade beef based on criteria such as ribeye area with at least moderate amounts of marbling; well-defined inward ossification (or bone development) in loin eye muscle segments (making them firm); and amount of external fat trimmed off from the carcass during butchering should be medium to low.

Overall, this highly auspicious grade offers superior eating qualities compared to many others across all cooking methods without differential behavior between steaks or roasts from the same lot or group of animals.

Select Grade

Select Grade beef is the third highest grade from the eight quality grades used to evaluate beef, falling below Prime and Choice Grades. Select Grade is most common in supermarkets and grocery stores, as it has a desirable balance of leanness and palatability for consumers — tenderer than lower grades but also slightly less marbled with fat compared to higher grade cuts.

Beef grading takes into account factors such as tenderness, juiciness, flavor, intramuscular fat (marbling), maturity, skeletal ossification scores (bone age), and carcass weight. Of these criteria assessed by USDA evaluators during the grading process, marbling has a particularly significant role in giving Select Grade meat its noticeable characteristics.

The amount of marbling may vary depending on species and producers, which impacts not only the selectiveness of customers but also the eating experience that this grade can provide because much depends on a balance between the lushness and leanness of each specific cut.

Standard Grade

The Standard Grade of beef is the lowest edible grade that a carcass can receive from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). It is characterized by moderate amounts of marbling, giving it average tenderness and juiciness.

Cuts from carcasses with this grade may have unsteady fat coverage, which contributes to lower eating quality. These steaks often tend to be chewy when cooked and lack flavor, making them less desirable than more superior grades such as Choice or Prime.

The maturity of the cattle at slaughter must also meet minimum requirements in order to receive this grade since younger cows inherently yield higher standards for other mandatory criteria – specifically, their meat’s level in intramuscular fat.

Commercial Grade

The Commercial Grade of beef indicates a lower grade in terms of its palatability and expected eating quality when compared with the higher Prime and Choice grades. This grade is usually used for other purposes, such as grinding into ground beef or producing stew meat, rather than being sold as steak cuts.

Moreover, it tends to be leaner than higher grades due to less intramuscular fat marbling (marble), leading to tougher meat that requires more tenderizing. While on the other hand, USDA Choice can be up to three times as expensive because it includes high-quality steaks suitable for broiling or grilling.

The relatively low cost associated with Commercial Grade of beef encourages producers to use them often in commercial food products like fast-food hamburgers due to their availability and consistency across various batches.

Utility Grade

The utility grade is one of the lower beef grades established by the USDA. The meat associated with this grade may be generally inferior in comparison to higher quality grades, such as Prime or Choice.

Utility-grade beef typically has slightly lower marbling and maturity levels than the two premium grades of beef. The amount of fat on a utility beef carcass usually ranges from little to moderate, resulting in less juiciness and tenderness when cooked compared to higher-graded cuts of steak.

Due to its relatively lower cost and longer shelf life, it is often sold for faster-cooking budget dishes like soups, stews, chili, casseroles, or diced cutlets that do not require extended cooking time.

Cutter Grade

Cutter-grade beef is the bottom gauge in terms of quality when it comes to beef grading. It has a lower score than Prime, Choice, and Select. This type of beef lacks substantial marbling—the streaks of intramuscular fat that give steak its juiciness and flavor—and may be more fibrous and tougher than other grades of meat as well.

Furthermore, carcasses within the full range of maturity classified as beef can be included in the Cutter grade, so higher value cuts such as rounds or tenders are not eligible for this grade.

Since it doesn’t have much flavor due to an absence in marbling, Cutter Grade Beef is most commonly used for ground products like hamburger patties or taco filling because they rely on sauces and condiments for flavor rather than developing their own flavor through cooking techniques like searing meats.

Canner Grade

Canner Grade beef is the lowest quality category within the USDA grading system. It is associated with lower eating quality because of its lack of desirable qualities such as flavor, tenderness, or juiciness.

The factors that are used to grade Canner Grade beef – including maturity and fat content – indicate that it tends to be leaner than higher grades and lacks a generous marbling rating. This makes Canner Grade unsuitable for steak cuts due to its poor taste and texture as well as its overall low level of desirability in terms of palatability.

In fact, it’s typically used for processed meat products since the flavor profile isn’t ideal for premium cuts like ribeye steaks or porterhouse chops. Meat from cattle graded with Canner may also not always have consistent taste and appearance when compared to other grades when served at different establishments or cooked differently at home since most US store-bought ground beef includes a blend of various grades in this group including Standard, Commercial, Utility, Cutter, and Canning Grades.

Factors that Determine Beef Quality Grades

Marbling, maturity, and skeletal ossification are the three primary factors that influence a beef carcass’s quality grade.


Marbling refers to the fine threads of fat found within the muscle tissue and is considered essential for achieving tenderness, juiciness, and flavor in beef. It is an important factor as it enhances the eating experience and contributes to a higher quality grade of beef.

The difference between grades stems from the degree of marbling present in each cut. Prime-grade beef contains high amounts of marbling, while Select-grade meats have very little or no marbling at all.

Be aware that finer-grained fat (fat that can’t be easily seen by the naked eye) may still be present even though there may not appear to be any visible streaks throughout the meat itself. In addition, USDA Quality Grades are determined based on factors such as degree and distribution of intramuscular fat; maturity; firmness; texture; the color of lean – suggesting that more than just visual appearances should be evaluated when selecting a grade of meat.


Maturity plays a key role in determining beef quality grades. Higher-maturity beef carcasses are categorized into four Quality grades: Prime, Choice, Select, and Standard. Beef marbling is highly correlated with higher positive impacts on meat qualities (e.g., juiciness, flavor) as it increases tenderness scores when cooked/processed and inter-muscular fat, which enhances the eating experience of consumers.

Maturity factors also affect the degree of marble that can be found within USDA Quality Grade categories such as Prime or Choice, which are mainly based on intramuscular fat level and uniformity, along with other characteristics like carcass weight, skeletal ossification, etc.

These two criteria—maturity & marbling—are combined to determine the USDA Quality Grade for an individual carcass. In addition to this, muscle fiber type and metabolic rate play vital roles in coloring as well as yield grade, thus affecting various aspects of beef quality grading criteria, and significantly influencing the final grade attained by any given cut or piece of meat.

Skeletal Ossification

Skeletal ossification is a key measure considered by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) when determining the grade and quality of beef carcasses. Skeletal ossification scores are based on the development of skeletal bones in live animals that can be judged from examining the 12th and 13th rib areas where cartilage begins to ossify, forming bone or calcifying into “buttons.”

The degree of buttoning is then taken as an indicator of maturity since older cows will tend to have more buttons than younger cattle which suggests higher maturity. Buttons refer to ribs with thicker bony areas indicative of age; immature steak cuts normally exhibit fewer buttons, while mature cuts feature multiple evident wedges or small ridges atop the ribeye area.

Button number helps assess palatability and flavor, indicating juiciness, tenderness, marbling as well as nutrient composition; a lower number correlates with improved eating qualities, whereas higher numbers generally indicate tougher meat exhibiting less desirable texture, reducing apparent value.

The Impact of Beef Quality Grades on the Quality of Cuts

The quality grade of a beef cut has a significant impact on the cooking experience. As the USDA assigns quality grades to beef based on fat marbling and physiological maturity, each grade has an effect on how tender, juicy, and flavorful the meat is.

Prime or upper Choice-graded beef typically contains more intramuscular fat – known as marbling – which adds flavor to your meal and makes for better texture. Cuts with more marbling usually require slower cooking methods like roasting instead of faster ones such as grilling.

These cuts are especially favored in steakhouses where ribeyes and sirloins are famed for their superb taste due to high-quality grading standards. Other popular steakhouse favorites such as filet mignon and T-bone steaks generally hail from prime-grade cattle that result in leaner but still richly flavored meats than other grades offer.

While lower choice grades tend toward leaner cuts, even these will be surprisingly juicy — erring much closer to “prime” than they do “select” — thanks largely to advancements in agriculture science geared towards increasing yield efficiency without sacrificing eating quality or juiciness of various steaks & chops taken from middle parts of cow carcass including hanger steak & top butt/cap – depending upon preferred name branding used by a butcher or retail outlets (like Harris Ranch).

However, select graded cuts from any part may appear dry when cooked quickly at high temperatures due to lack of an adequate amount of Marblings present inside them unless specifically treated using relevant blade/Bold XL type tools available commonly but before attempting to cook it newly bought piece needs careful inspection since using the incorrect tool may lead tough chew eventually ruining entire dish not desired by anyone regardless what chef skilled enough can conveniently achieve with rest crucial factors while creating best food outcomes possible out there!

How to Choose the Right Grade of Beef for Different Cooking Methods

  • When choosing the right grade of beef for different cooking methods, consider the marbling and fat content. Higher grades of beef have more fat interspersed between the muscle fibers (marbling), which makes them more tender and flavorful when cooked.
  • Prime-grade beef is usually best for roasting, broiling, grilling, or frying as it has high levels of intramuscular fat, resulting in juicy cuts that are full of flavor.
  • Choice grade is leaner than Prime but still offers plenty of flavor and juiciness. This type of beef can be used in any type of recipe, from grilling to slow cooking.
  • Select grade is leaner than Choice grade with less marbling, so it should only be used for longer cooking methods like braising or stewing, where greater moisture is needed during cooking to help keep the meat tender.
  • Standard Grade typically has no visible marbling, so this should also only be used in recipes that require long, slow cooking, such as casseroles or stews.

Common Misconceptions about Beef Grades

  • Misconception #1: Beef that has been graded is lower in quality than beef that has not been graded. In actuality, all beef is graded on some level, and the higher grades indicate better quality. The USDA assigns beef a grade based on the amount of marbling and age of the animal, factors that determine the palatability and tenderness of the meat.
  • Misconception #2: Angus beef is always higher in quality than other breeds. While Angus cattle are known for their superior marbling ability, there are other breeds that are equally as high in quality grade. Quality grading is based primarily on fat content, regardless of breed type.
  • Misconception #3: Ground beef is always lower in quality than other beef cuts. Ground beef can be comprised of both lean and fatty cuts, depending on what meat trim it contains. In fact, ground beef can be sourced from USDA Prime or Choice Grades; however, it receives no grade due to its ground form, as there can be variability between batches at retail.
  • Misconception #4: Grass-fed beef is automatically higher in quality than grain-fed. While grass-fed and finished cattle are considered to have improved eating characteristics due to lower fat levels, there’s no guarantee that grass-fed will be higher in grade than grain-fed animals. Some grain-fed animals may grade higher depending on their overall genetics and rate of maturity.
  • Misconception #5: All Wagyu cattle are high in quality grade. While Wagyu cattle often produce highly marbled steaks with excellent flavor characteristics, not all Wagyu meet a high level of grade expectation; only certain bloodlines qualify for top-tier grades such as Prime or Japanese A5 (the highest ranking).

The Role of USDA in Grading Beef

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has an important role to play in the beef industry, providing a standardized method for grading and assigning quality grades to beef. Through the USDA’s Beef Quality Grading System, producers, packers, and consumers are able to communicate about meat using the same language.

The main purpose of this system is to ensure consistent quality in the cuts that consumers purchase without having to rely on subjective opinions about taste or flavor.

To assess the grade of each carcass being evaluated by USDA graders, intramuscular fat marbling and maturity will be taken into consideration as some factors affecting palatability, including tenderness, juiciness, and flavor, differ with these elements present in varying degrees.

As part of their assessment process, they also take into consideration yield grade, which identifies differences in cutability between production lots. With careful evaluation carried out by trained professionals who work independently from both producer and packer endpoints can help facilitate direct consumer trust when selecting retail cuts over certain standards set within two separate grades-quality grade & yield grade-which signifies different characteristics such as estimated palatability based on lean vs fatty content paired with specific levels indicative across species level somatic cell count exclusions ranging anywhere from 0 – 5M cells/mL respectively for Beef., Toggenburg goat milk amongst others key members tied integrally against “official US domestic dairy regulations” before final classification deemed true is released unaltered otherwise per guidelines; aka within 8 distinct quality ranks:,,Standard,-commercial,-utility..cutter-,canner^ recommended either wet aged >21d(days)-60 d dry age CO₂ enriched – depending upon product integrity needs*warranting accordingly desired outcome expected from shoppers alike shopping Inbeef markets nationwide.


The grades of beef represent varying levels of quality, yielding different and unique eating experiences. Prime-grade beef offers the finest experience with exceptional intramuscular fat content and tenderness for a premium price.

The choice grade is slightly less tender but still goes beyond expectations in terms of juiciness and flavor. Select-grade beef comprises leaner cuts that tend to be more economical for cooks on a budget. At the same time, Standard, Commercial, Utility, Cutter, and Canner are lower-grade beef best used in flavorful dishes such as stews or ground meat products where texture is not essential.

A clear understanding of the USDA Quality Grades system has become increasingly important for consumers; by paying close attention to labels at the butcher store or restaurant menu, they can select successful cuts every time, whether making steak tartare or Brazilian Picanha Churrasco in their own kitchens.


Q: What are the different grades of USDA beef?

A: The different grades of USDA beef include Prime, Choice, Select, Standard, Commercial, Utility, Cutter, and Canner.

Q: How do USDA beef grades affect the quality of meat cuts?

A: USDA beef grades are an indication of the quality and tenderness of the meat. Higher grades, such as Prime and Choice, generally have more marbling and tend to be more flavorful and tender compared to lower grades.

Q: What is yield grade in relation to USDA beef?

A: Yield grade is a measure of the amount of usable lean meat from a beef carcass. It takes into account the amount of fat, bone, and other non-usable parts. Higher yield grades indicate a higher percentage of lean meat.

Q: What is the marble score in USDA beef?

A: The marbling score refers to the amount of marbling, or intramuscular fat, in a cut of beef. It is graded on a scale from 1 to 12, with higher scores indicating a higher degree of marbling.

Q: How does the USDA grading system work for beef?

A: The USDA grading system for beef evaluates both the quality and yield grade of a beef carcass. The quality grade is determined by the amount of marbling, maturity, and firmness of the meat, while the yield grade assesses the amount of usable lean meat.

Q: What is the difference between Prime, Choice, and Select beef?

A: Prime beef has the highest degree of marbling and tenderness, making it the most flavorful and tender. Choice beef is also well-marbled and offers good eating quality. Select beef has less marbling, making it leaner and less tender than Prime and Choice.

Q: How does the USDA grade beef for eating quality?

A: The USDA grades beef based on its tenderness, juiciness, and flavor. This is determined by factors such as marbling, maturity, and fat distribution within the meat.

Q: What is the significance of Prime beef?

A: Prime beef is the highest quality grade and is known for its exceptional tenderness, juiciness, and flavor. It is often served in high-end restaurants and is considered a premium choice for steaks and roasts.

Q: How does the beef grading system affect beef producers?

A: The beef grading system provides a measure of the quality and value of beef, which can impact the marketability and price of the beef. Producers strive to raise cattle that meet the requirements of higher grade levels to maximize their profitability.

Q: What is the importance of beef carcass grading?

A: Beef carcass grading ensures that consumers receive consistent quality and helps to differentiate beef based on eating quality. It also provides producers and retailers with a framework to communicate the quality and value of their products.

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