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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
Sep 12, 2019
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?

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.

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.

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 ?

Justin Hollowell
Nov 08, 2019

I'm a grader at a slaughter house and I'm not a USDA employee but I do have to go through all the same test as the government employees do. I guarantee the quality of the beef I grade in my plant is up to par with the government.... with that said... what ever sticker your local butcher puts on.. I guarantee he ups it just for a higher price.

Nov 17, 2019


Ben Weaver
Nov 19, 2019

@Anonymous - thank you for your comment. USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service conducts reviews in processing plants, retail stores and restaurants to ensure accurate labeling of USDA graded meat products. If there is a customer complaint, please provide the store name and address to the point of contacts listed below and we will conduct a review of the location to ensure USDA grade labels are being utilized correctly.

USDA, Agricultural Marketing Service
Livestock & Poultry Program
Quality Assessment Division
Grading Services Branch
Dana Stahl, Chief
1400 Independence Ave SW
Room 3936-S
Washington, DC 20250

You can also contact:

USDA/Food Safety and Inspection Service
Office of Policy and Program Development
Labeling and Program Delivery Staff

Taylor weeks
Nov 30, 2019

Does USDA or the health department have some sort of yearly “list” or PDF document of the grades for each restaurant, like TACOBELL - GRADE D or what ever they got this year. Etc.

Mary Anna
Dec 11, 2019

I thought it was strange that sometimes I would get prime rib at a restaurant and it is tough and gristly, others it is tender. I recently found out that "Prime Rib" is a cut of meat, not the USDA grade. Restaurants don't tell you what grade of beef they use for prime rib.

Randall Oxford
Dec 23, 2019

How can restaurant's advertise prime rib? When most time its choice choice or select????

Edward Jennings
Dec 25, 2019

how do you know if you're getting the prime meat or what greater it is when it's not marked it used to be stamped with a blue stamp which is no longer

Dec 29, 2019

$10/lb choice Angus Rib Eyes were not edible they were tough, and a true disappointment.

As an accomplished cook, with deep roots in Chicago (home of the BEST BEEF IN THE UNITED STATES AND THE WORLD) , these ribeyes could not have been EATEN. IT WAS A JOKE.

They were tough and the WORST BEEF I HAVE EVER HAD... BAR NONE.



Paul McVicker
Jan 04, 2020

Just bought and baked pork chops from Walmart. They were so tough, so unbelievably tough, I was almost unable to cut through them with a steak knive and definitely unable to chew them and I have the best and strongest teeth and jaws of anyone anywkere.
Terrible: there should be a law covering such at grocery stores

Malcolm Talbott
Jan 10, 2020

This article states " Prime beef is produced from young, well-fed beef cattle" but does not state what they are fed with? (unless i missed that part in this article) are they grass fed?

Jan 13, 2020

Does the usda meat have gluten?

Ben Weaver
Jan 14, 2020

@Andrew - thank you for the inquiry regarding gluten in meat products regulated by USDA. In general, fresh meat products do not contain gluten, but that may not be the case if the meat product is further processed with other non-meat ingredients. The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) follows Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations and review label submissions to determine if any specific declaration is necessary. A product that contains gluten would need to list the ingredient by common or usual name in the ingredients statement, e.g., wheat flour, wheat gluten, barley flour, etc. Additionally, FSIS reviews special claims for processors that want to a label a meat product as “gluten free”. These are referred to as negative claims, which highlights the absence of a substance, i.e., gluten. For reference, the FSIS Food Standards and Labeling Policy Book discusses these types of marketing claims in greater detail.

James A Giordano
Jan 24, 2020

1st time responding to anything on line.
The Beef information was not only interesting, but extremely informative.
Thanks Jim.

Bonnie Peters
Feb 05, 2020

Good information, Can I get this as a printout or brochure to carry with me to the store? Not a fan of watching videos.

Ben Weaver
Feb 06, 2020

@Bonnie Peters - thank you for your comment. There’s no brochure affiliated with the video. However, here is a link to the image in What's Your Beef? that you can save or print for reference next time you’re shopping:

greg kuhns
Feb 11, 2020

what is premium choice beef

Ben Weaver
Feb 14, 2020

@greg kuhns - thank you for your comment. “Premium Choice Beef” is fancy language and is not descriptive of the USDA quality grade. With our numerous Certified Meat Programs, companies sometimes use these tactics to market a consistently higher quality of beef from the Choice grade. If a package is labeled “USDA Certified”, then that product is certified by our meat graders to meet set qualifications. However, “Premium Choice Beef” could actually be USDA Choice with the phrase added to market the product to consumers without being certified by USDA graders. Essentially it boils down to advertising the product and using language that makes it more appealing to the consumer.

Feb 21, 2020

I’d say those that claim to prefer grass-finished beef do so because of the premium paid for it coupled with the ethical pat on the back. In the actual beef industry – including high-end steakhouses – grass-fed beef is not looked at as a high-quality premium product. It it however used as a marketing term to charge a higher price.

Mar 14, 2020

Shopping a Kroger I find T bone steaks that do not have the 1/4 inch of meat required to sell as T bone just a piece of fat there.
Is this poor quality cut or can they really get away with this?

Khang Phan
Apr 04, 2020

I have bought the steak with usda choice but the sign is not look like what you shown, might I bought a fake usda steak. Thanks

Ben Weaver
Apr 13, 2020

@Khang Phan - thank you for your question. Our website shows two different versions of our grade shield, but some advertising can vary slightly. While AMS would prefer that retail locations selling USDA graded beef use labeling consistent with our grade shield, that is not required. The information must be correct but the advertising may vary slightly. If you forward a picture of the label we might better understand your concern.

Apr 27, 2020

NO MORE BEEF FROM OTHER COUNTRIES !!!!!!!!!!!!!!! label where it comes from a package !!!!!!

Deanna Hodges
May 09, 2020

If it is true we are importing beef, how can the consumer know where it is from or if it is safe? Why can’t Americans eat our own beef? Who took away our freedom to choose where our beef comes from? I don’t understand and think Americans deserve answers. Publicly about our food supply. No more behind the scenes.

Victoria L Marlowe
May 11, 2020

What ever it takes to save American beef and keep our beef safe..all our food safe.

May 13, 2020

I'm just trying to find out where my meat comes from. Some of these labels I see appear very misleading. I expect more from the USDA and I am very troubled I cannot find out where my meat comes from. This is really, really sad for the USA and is not what US citizens want.

Eduardo Vega
Jun 09, 2020

hi, is any of the Select, choice, or Prime certifications allowing the beef to be tenderized (mechanically or via chemicals tenderizers)?

Ben Weaver
Jun 11, 2020

@Eduardo Vega - thank you for your comment. Tenderization does not take place prior to the AMS grader applying the USDA grade to each carcass. AMS does not currently have any certification specifications that state tenderization is being utilized. If chemicals are added for tenderization, those chemicals would be approved by USDA FSIS prior to use and listed on the finished product label.

Tom Merrick
Jun 19, 2020

What is “choice select” beef? I have seen this designation at several stores.

Ben Weaver
Jun 22, 2020

@Tom Merrick - thank you for your comment. USDA Choice and USDA Select are two separate quality grades of beef used to determine the expected eating experience for the consumer. Most of the quality attributes to predict eating experience are based on intramuscular fat or marbling.

Jul 02, 2020

The local food store sells beef labeled PREMIUM, but I don’t see that as one of the standards. Why not and why doesn’t the FDA stop this kind of labeling?

Ben Weaver
Jul 10, 2020

@Dale - thank you for your comment. While the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service oversees the grading and labeling of products, it does not require the retailer to advertise the official grade. This means that a retailer could sell USDA Choice beef, but not advertise they sell USDA Choice beef. If a retailer chooses to label its product with an USDA Prime, Choice or Select label, then AMS would enforce the labeling through Public Law 272.

USDA does not have a Premium label. If your store has labeled beef as Premium, that would be a form of advertisement or marketing language not related to the U.S. Grade Standards. Your local retailer may be using Premium to market a USDA Certified product. Look for products that include “USDA” on the label to ensure that the product was evaluated and graded according to the U.S. Grade Standards by an AMS grader.

charlie jacobs
Oct 27, 2020

what if a grocery store steak has no grade shield? is it safe to eat?

Nov 20, 2020

Very good information! Thank you.

Feb 10, 2021

I am doing a project and this was a really good site one of the best site's i have seen about steak

sue Martson
Apr 09, 2021

If USDA grading is based on the fat content, does that mean ‘fat is healthy’ to consume?

Ben Weaver
Apr 12, 2021

@sue Martson – thanks for your comment. The USDA beef grades and standards address the quality of beef (tenderness, juiciness and flavor). However, they do not address or consider nutritional value. For more information on dietary guidelines, visit:

Biraj Kumar
Jun 23, 2021

I had a little confused about the beef marbling, and its prime cut. After reading your article I cleared about that. Thanks

Liz A
Sep 21, 2021

Prime or choice beef as they are better qualities.

Bobby Kim
Sep 30, 2021

Hi I own a Korean bbq delivery company and am purchasing usda prime center cut short rib for our kalbi. Can I advertise that we’re using usda prime cut because I’m getting it from a supplier that has a usda shield and selling it to us under the choice designation?

Ben Weaver
Oct 12, 2021

@Bobby Kim - thank you for your comment. Yes, you would be able to advertise Prime short ribs as Prime if you were supplied Prime grade labeled product in a Choice or higher box.  However, in the future if you start receiving Choice product again, you would be required to change your advertisement/menu back to Choice.