Grades of Beef - USDA Prime, Choice, Select, Black Angus, Grass Fed - What Do They All Mean?

Buy the Right Steak!

Choice, prime, Angus, organic, select…! Wow, buying a piece of meat sure can get confusing, and the prices can range pretty drastically too. So what do these terms mean, and what do you need to know to buy a piece of meat your family is going to enjoy, at a price you can afford?

USDA Grading System

The USDA runs a voluntary meat gradient system for beef producers. The grades are as follows and in descending order of quality and price

  • Prime
  • Choice
  • Select
  • Standard
  • Commercial
  • Utility
  • Cutter
  • Canner

Meat is graded by the amount of marbling in the beef. Cuts of meat with greater fat quantities inside the grain are awarded higher gradient scores. The fattiest cuts – USDA Prime, comprise only 4% of beef going to market, and these expensive cuts are destined almost exclusively for hotels and restaurants.

50% of retail meat is of USDA Choice quality, and most of the remaining supermarket meat is of Select quality. Lower quality meat is not normally passed through the USDA grading system.

Why is Marbling Important?

Intramuscular fat is important for high heat and dry heat cooking techniques, such as pan frying, broiling or grilling – how we typically cook our steaks. The greater quantities of fat within the grains of meat keep the cooked steaks juicy and tender.

As a general rule, if you have the choice of buying a USDA Choice sirloin, or a USDA Select rib eye, for example, and both were of a similar price, you would be better off going for the normally tougher and cheaper sirloin, of a higher USDA grade.

Other Terms?

Here is a short glossary of other beef terms you might see on a supermarket label.

Angus (Black Angus)

This is a breed of cattle loved by ranchers for putting on weight and fat quickly, and which often develops a high marbling in the meat.

Kobe (Wagyu)

Japanese style steak. The term Wagyu refers to a few breeds of cattle that have been bread for very high marbling in the meat. Wagyu cows are fed a unique diet (which has traditionally included beer) to provide a unique and delicious tasting meat. Japanese Kobe beef is some of the world's most expensive meat. Japanese Wagyu cows have been bred with American Angus cows to produce an also very tasty American Kobe beef.

Organic Beef

An organic certification indicates that the cow has been raised hormone free.

Grass Fed

Grass fed beef is raised primarily on pasture grazing rather than feedlot corn. Grass fed beef is more costly to produce, but aficionados say it presents with more complex meaty flavors. Grass fed cows are not generally as well marbled as corn fed cows, and grass fed beef is not generally entered into the USDA grading system for this reason.

Comments 8 comments

02SmithA profile image

02SmithA 8 years ago from Ohio

Interesting. I love my steak but I didn't know the breakdowns of what each meat type meant.


Ted Steele 6 years ago

Can you tell where Simmental stands amongst cattle breeds for standardized marbling scores


Mike 6 years ago

at or near the bottom usually they are cross bred with cattle that have higher marbling traits which are usually smaller framed the result being they are medium framed and the quality grade will follow into that same range with the average being low choice to high select


rf 5 years ago

Organic meat is not just hormone free. It means that the feed fed to the animal was also raised in an organic fashion, without commercial fertilizers or pesticides. All beef is technically hormone-free in that the hormone given to the animal at an early age has been excreted out of its system and can no longer be detected in the meat that you eat, making it safe.


Judy 5 years ago

Can the name Angus also just a commerical handle? eg McDonalds is advertising an angus burger. Are there enough Angus cattle in the world to supply McDonalds, let alone others advertising "angus"? How does one know the difference between real Angus breed beef, and companies that call themselves "Black Angus" for instance?


bryce 4 years ago

all beef is not angus it is just one breed out of hundreds. its like callling all dogs german shepards. next time you order a burger or steak ask if its free if they cannot prove its angus breed coause they can't.


Leah 3 years ago

Judy, it is most likely angus. Angus is not a prolific type of beef- in fact, it is extremely abundant. It is a marketing ploy. People hear the term angus, and assume it is a better cut of meat. This is not true. So is it angus? Yes, is it better- No.


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