How the USDA Grading System Works for Steaks

The United States Department of Agriculture created a ranking system or quality grading system to rate the palatability of meat in regards to flavor, tenderness and juiciness. There are eight categories and they include factors such as firmness, texture, lean meat color, carcass maturity and amount and distribution of marbling within the lean meat.

Beef is graded when it is still in carcass form. A trained Agricultural Marketing Service meat grader inspects the whole carcass and measures it in terms of maturity and marbling. Marbling stands for the intramuscular fat in the beef and maturity is the estimated age of the cow at time of slaughter. The scores are combined to determine a particular cow’s final quality grade. The grade is then used for labeling purposes when the meat is sold.

Marbling is the tiny white flecks of fat that are scattered throughout the red lean part of the meat. The marbling keeps meat tender and juicy while it cooks and provides it with excellent flavor. Beef with high amounts of marbling typically earn a higher USDA quality grade.

The eight categories include prime, choice, select, standard, commercial, utility, cutter and canner.

Prime meat has the highest degree of marbling. This is the highest quality meat sold in the United States and it is usually found at high-end steakhouses.

Choice is a popular upscale grade of beef at restaurants and higher-end retailers. This grade actually has a fairly wide amount of variations with some cuts featuring almost a prime grade amount of marbling while other cuts have much less marbling, closer to Select.

Select grade features limited marbling and is less tender than Prime or Choice grade. This tends to be the most readily available grade of meat available in the United States.

Of the meats in the United States, only approximately two percent is USDA Prime. The majority of meat sold in U.S. grocery stores is Choice or Select.

Some individuals object to the USDA’s beef grades stating that they need to take tenderness into account when grading the beef. In response to this, in 1978 the American Angus Association created the Certified Angus Beef label to accompany the USDA quality grades. To be labeled as Certified Angus Beef, cattle must be 51 percent black Angus and meet the following criteria:

  •     Modest or higher degree of marbling
  •     Medium or fine marbling texture
  •     A USDA level "A" maturity
  •     10 to 16 square-inch ribeye area
  •     Less than 1,000-pound hot carcass weight
  •     Less than 1-inch fat thickness
  •     Moderately thick or thicker muscling
  •     No hump on the neck exceeding 5 cm (2")
  •     Practically free of capillary rupture
  •     No dark cutting characteristics