Understanding a little about the quality USDA Grading system for beef.

The government has made buying quality beef a bit easier by establishing a uniform grading system.


The government has made buying quality beef a bit easier by establishing a uniform grading system. Most people are not aware that beef is actually broken up into not 3 grades, but rather 8. Besides the ones you are familiar with Prime, Choice and Select, there are 5 others you will never see in a store. Standard, Commercial, Utility, Cutter and Canner are the other grades that you may have heard of that go into everything from chili to potted meat and pet foods.

The good news-bad news is this. The entire grading system is extremely complicated and difficult to understand, that is the bad news. The good news is that all you really need to know is that Prime cattle are rare representing about 2-3 percent of all cattle. 50% of all cattle are usually Choice, and the balance are Select or below. Prime Beef is great, choice is usually really good, and select is usually and often not so good.

More bad news, the grocery business has done their best to confuse the issue by playing name games. In most grocery stores you will be getting USDA Select meat, but usually it will come with a fancy name like “Rancher’s Reserve” which is Safeway’s brand of USDA Select meat, or Black Canyon Angus Beef or a host of other names. The most important thing to know is that USDA Select is the lowest grade of beef you can buy in a store. Generally playing the name game can be simplified if you realize it’s what you don’t see that really says a lot. If you see a fancy name, and no USDA Choice Seal, then you are most likely getting USDA Select beef, which is as low as it goes. You will always be rolling the dice with the tenderness and flavor of USDA Select meat.

The Select grade has virtually no marbling, is more chewy and tough, and has less flavor than USDA Choice beef. Stores prefer to carry Select because it is pretty and bright red; it is leaner and has no fat to trim off. What this means to a meat manager is that there is little or no waste and the yield is better and therefore so are the profits. In fact often a meat manager can actually buy USDA Choice beef for the same price as select but they choose not to, so as to save money on trim and waste thereby increasing profits.

Unfortunately, Select meat is just not that great. Even rib-eyes and T-bones will often be tough and chewy. Chuck steaks, tri-tips and other cheaper cuts will most certainly be too lean and hard to chew and surely lack the savory flavor of Choice Beef.

To complicate matters even more USDA Choice Beef is further broken up into 5 different yields which also relate to the amount of waste. Yield 1 and 2 choice offer little waste, and only slight marbling. In my estimation these Choice yields offer little improvement over USDA Select Beef. You might say that this is the worst of the best, since the better USDA Choice beef goes into Certified Premium labels. Yield 3 choice beef is a pretty good compromise, but yield 4 and 5 Choice Beef are usually best, being nicely marbled and offer all of the characteristics you want in an awesome piece of meat!

The Certified Premium programs offered by most meat packers are usually yields 3-5, but some premium beef programs have higher standards than others. Often I see beef that I cannot believe could be graded choice at all. That is why it is nice to have a butcher on your side to help you pick out the best for your needs on any given day! At Lakeview, we are on your side, and want to do everything to insure you have the very best results, so you will tell others and we will grow our business!

Remember at Lakeview Supermarket and Deli you are not just a customer, you are a “client”. As a Lakeview meat client you are “under the care, guidance and supervision of a trusted professional!” We guide you through the entire buying process, whether you are buying a meat pack or a special holiday roast. Our business has always been built on satisfied and loyal customers, not short term profits from a single sale or two!

Should you have any questions regarding the meat grading system email or call us a Lakeview Supermarket and Deli anytime, or any day from 8am to 8pm.

Kenny Parlet

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