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What’s Your Beef – Prime, Choice or Select?

Posted by Larry Meadows, Director, AMS Livestock, Poultry and Seed Program Grading and Verification Division in Food and Nutrition
Jan 28, 2013
Infographic outlining the differences between USDA’s beef grades
Infographic outlining the differences between USDA’s beef grades.

The USDA grade shields are highly regarded as symbols of safe, high-quality American beef.  Quality grades are widely used as a "language" within the beef industry, making business transactions easier and providing a vital link to support rural America. Consumers, as well as those involved in the marketing of agricultural products, benefit from the greater efficiency permitted by the availability and application of grade standards.

Beef is evaluated by highly-skilled USDA meat graders using a subjective characteristic assessment process and electronic instruments to measure meat characteristics. These characteristics follow the official grade standards developed, maintained and interpreted by the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service.

Beef is graded in two ways: quality grades for tenderness, juiciness and flavor; and yield grades for the amount of usable lean meat on the carcass. From a consumer standpoint, what do these quality beef grades mean?

Prime beef is produced from young, well-fed beef cattle. It has abundant marbling (the amount of fat interspersed with lean meat), and is generally sold in restaurants and hotels. Prime roasts and steaks are excellent for dry-heat cooking such as broiling, roasting or grilling.

Choice beef is high quality, but has less marbling than Prime. Choice roasts and steaks from the loin and rib will be very tender, juicy, and flavorful and are suited for dry-heat cooking. Many of the less tender cuts can also be cooked with dry heat if not overcooked. Such cuts will be most tender if braised, roasted or simmered with a small amount of liquid in a tightly covered pan.

Select beef is very uniform in quality and normally leaner than the higher grades. It is fairly tender, but, because it has less marbling, it may lack some of the juiciness and flavor of the higher grades. Only the tender cuts should be cooked with dry heat. Other cuts should be marinated before cooking or braised to obtain maximum tenderness and flavor.

Standard and Commercial grades of beef are frequently sold as ungraded or as store brand meat. Utility, Cutter, and Canner grades of beef are seldom, if ever, sold at retail but are used instead to make ground beef and processed products.

Recently, USDA collaborated with the United States Meat Export Federation and Colorado State University to develop an educational video about the beef grading process. This video provides a comprehensive overview of the beef grading system – from farm to table.

So next time you are at a restaurant or grocery store, look for the USDA grade shield and you will better be able to answer the question, “What’s your beef?”

Category/Topic: Food and Nutrition

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Feb 20, 2019

Is a standing rib roast , select, @ 4.54# for $20.00 a good price,?


Apr 21, 2019

Recently, I saw porterhouse and t-bone steak advertised at a local Food Lion as USDA choice; however, when at the store, the meat had no USDA shield. If advertised as choice, does FDA require that the meat be equally tagged?

Leo R Elderkin
Apr 23, 2019

Is all USA sourced Wagyu Beef USDA Prime by default?

Ben Weaver
Apr 24, 2019

@Leo R Elderkin - thank you for your comment. Just because the Wagyu is USA sourced, it is not intended by default as a Prime Grade. Wagyu carcasses that are being harvested and graded in the U.S. remain to be graded by our USDA Meat Graders. Each carcass is physically evaluated for the Quality Grade it represents and meets the criteria of the USDA Select, USDA Choice or USDA Prime Grades.

Ben Weaver
Apr 24, 2019

@Bettyjoe - thank you for your comment. USDA does not require individual packages of meat, or signs in front of the meat, to be labeled with the grade even though they come from USDA Choice. In the case you mention, it would be assumed all those packages in their store would have to be Choice steaks since they are not labeling them individually. They would be subject to a PL-272 violation if USDA conducted a review and all their loins were not from USDA Choice. Not having a designated grade label on the meat package is not a violation.

Joe W Woods
Jun 19, 2019

How would one find out the grade of a restaurant steak? A customer/guest cannot see this.

Ben Weaver
Jun 20, 2019

@Joe W Woods - thank you for your comment. The grade shield must be maintained through to the consumer for any grade claims to be made at the retail level. That meaning if a given beef cut is from a Choice graded carcass at the processing facility, the identity of the USDA grade must be maintained on the packaging and/or box labels to the retail location. The USDA grade being maintained to the retail level ensures the ability to be able to trace that graded product back to the original facility of grading by utilizing the FSIS Establishment number that is on all packaging leaving that facility. The customer at the restaurant relies on the advertised grade identified on the menu, discussion with restaurant staff or any proof that the restaurant wants to share with that customer.

AMS/QAD graders perform Public Law 272 reviews at retail locations to ensure that grade identity is maintained and advertised correctly. This is done by review of the meat holding cooler and reviewing invoices of meat purchased which shows the grade of product ordered to ensure a retail location is for example not purchasing USDA Choice but is advertising USDA Prime graded beef.

Sep 11, 2019

The Image cant be viewed with out logging into Flickr. This should be hosted on or at least a fully public site. Also is there a comparison chart of normal beef vs Angus beef grading scale? These are the choices consumers are looking at when selecting meat.

Ben Weaver
Sep 12, 2019

@Luke - thank you for your comment. Also, thank you for letting us know about the Flickr link. We have removed it. Also, here is the answer to your comment below:

There are many options available to consumers when purchasing beef, and the USDA guide on grades helps explain the differences among USDA Select, Choice, and Prime – the three grades you see most often at the grocery store. “Angus” often appears as a claim on those products, along with many others that may not just relate to breed, but also to a wide variety of other processes like raising or handling claims. You can find additional information about those products on that company’s website.

John Frazier
Sep 16, 2019

Where do we get some not so tuff. Steaks ?