Making the Grade
Deciphering supermarket labeling when it comes to beef is no easy feat
What exactly is the difference between USDA-certified choice beef and USDA-certified select beef? These grades may seem like mandatory government labels, but they’re actually paid for by beef producers. About 84 percent of beef produced in the United States is given a grade by the USDA at the request (and expense of) beef producers. The other 16 percent is of the poorest quality and typically only used for canned or pre-made products. There are eight grades of meat assigned based on juiciness, flavor, and tenderness.—Savanna Shuntich
Prime beef has the highest amount of marbling (intramuscular fat), which contributes heavily to its flavor. This category comprises only 3 percent of graded beef and is hard to find anywhere but restaurants and high-end, specialty grocers. It’s only made from cattle younger than about forty-two months.
Meat in this grade tends to be leaner than prime and choice beef. It can compete with higher grades in the category of tenderness but falls short when it comes to juiciness and flavor. Select beef comprises roughly 40 percent of graded meat. This, too, must be from cattle younger than about forty-two months.
Choice beef has plenty of marbling, though not as much as prime. The tenderest cuts of choice beef will come from the loin and ribs. Roughly 57 percent of graded beef falls into this category, and it carries the same forty-two-month cattle age limit.
USDA UTILITY , CUTTER AND CANNER
Usually not available for average consumers in raw form. This meat is used to make canned products or ground beef. Stephanie Smith’s burger (which gave her E. coli, as reported by The New York Times) was likely made from beef from one or more of these grades.
USDA STANDARD AND COMMERCIAL
Often labeled as store brand meat and not officially graded. It is unlikely that you will see any meat carrying these grades in the supermarket.
USDA ORGANIC V.S. USDA NATURAL V.S. AMERICAN GRASSFED
This label means that 95 percent of the packaged product fulfills the above requirements.
Natural beef cannot contain additives and preservatives, but the animal can be given antibiotics, growth hormones, and nonorganic feed.
Regulations dictate that the animal must be given “continuous access to pasture during the growing season” and fed only grasses. However there are no limitations on antibiotics, growth hormones, additives, or preservatives. The only advantage is that grass-fed beef tends to be leaner and higher in omega-3s.
USDA 100% Organic
Beef bearing this label must fulfill a variety of requirements. The animal must be raised in pasturelands, fed organic certified feed, and given no antibiotics or growth hormones. All organizations involved in producing organic beef must be certified by the USDA, which means the meat is monitored from farm to factory. Proffitt Family Farms is the only cattle farm in North Carolina that meets this designation.