How Meat is Graded

It’s Back-to-School time – do you know your meat grades?

USDA Grade Shields Prime are the symbols the US Department of Agriculture uses to designate the quality of beef consumers purchase.

Grading is determined by the amount of visible marbling in the meat and marbling is basically the thin strands of fat that run through the meat (intra-muscular fat); it is this fat that gives the meat its flavor and tenderness.

What is Marbling?

In the culinary world, marbling refers to white flecks and streaks of fat within the lean sections of meat. Marbling is so named because the streaks of fat resemble a marble pattern. Also called intramuscular fat, marbling adds flavor and is one of the main criteria for judging the quality of cuts of meat. In general, the more marbling it contains, the better a cut of meat is.

Note that we’re not talking about the layer of fat on the outside of the steak or roast, which can be trimmed away. Nor are we talking about layers of fat between two separate muscles, like you’ll see in chuck roasts, for instance. Marbling is strictly the flecks of fat that occur within the meat itself.

What Causes Marbling?

Marbling is fat, so it is largely determined by the diet of the animal (and to a certain degree the breed of cattle). Cattle that are raised on grain will have more marbling than grass-fed beef. This is reasonably intuitive since you can imagine how difficult it would be to get fat by eating grass. It’s also why you’ve probably never seen grass-fed beef that was graded prime (which is the highest grade), despite the fact that grass-fed beef is more expensive.

Cowboy Ribeye
Moody’s Signature Beef: Local, Dry-Aged and Better than Prime!

Certain Cuts Have More

Certain cuts of meat naturally have more marbling than others. The beef rib and short loin are among the most marbled sections, while the beef round and sirloin tend to have the least.

To ensure an accurate comparison, inspectors look at the loin muscle, specifically between the 12th and 13th ribs, which is where the short loin primal cut meets  the sirloin.

Tenderness and marbling don’t necessarily go hand in hand, so while the beef tenderloin is possibly the most tender cut of beef, it doesn’t usually have much marbling

Moreover, quality grading is as subjective and arbitrary as the perceptions of the individual person who performs the inspection. There is no formula for how to ascertain the exact point where a moderate amount of marbling becomes slightly abundant marbling. It all has to do with the inspector’s impressions of a single location on the carcass.

Let’s Look at the Individual Grades

There are eight grades of beef as illustrated in the chart below; the retail market, however, is concerned with only three: Prime; Choice and Select.

Beef Grading Diagram
How Meat is Graded 7
  • USDA Prime Primeis the most coveted; it has the most marbling and is also the most expensive.  USDA Prime is usually reserved for high-end restaurants and specialty butcher shops. Prime accounts for 2.9% of all graded beef.
  • USDA Choice Choiceis the most prevalent grocery grade. However, Choice is divided into three sub-categories: High Choice (moderately abundant marbling); Choice (modest marbling); and Low Choice (small amount of marbling). The Choice category is the most confusing and the most abused as any of the sub-categories can be sold as Choice even if it is a lower choice product. So, a retailer who sells only High Choice beef must compete with a retailer who only sells Low Choice – they can be labeled the same but the price and quality is quite different.
  • USDA Select Selectis typically the lowest grocery quality and is widely available in the retail market. It is much leaner than USDA Choice and tends to be less tender or juicy.