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"USDA Tender" - A Cooperative Effort with the U.S. Beef Industry

Posted by Craig Morris, Deputy Administrator of the AMS, Livestock, Poultry and Seed Program in Food and Nutrition Health and Safety
Feb 21, 2017
USDA worked with academia and industry over the past several years to develop a system to determine beef tenderness, using an objective scale to ensure that cuts with the new label consistently meet consumer expectations.
USDA worked with academia and industry over the past several years to develop a system to determine beef tenderness, using an objective scale to ensure that cuts with the new label consistently meet consumer expectations.

Tenderness is one of the most significant factors affecting the overall consumer acceptance of beef cuts.  Although the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Beef Quality Grading program is a useful tool in predicting overall consumer acceptance of beef, other factors besides those assessed by the USDA Quality Grading System affect beef tenderness.  In other words, beef that may not grade to the highest USDA Quality Grade (USDA Select or Choice vs. USDA Prime) may in fact be rated just as tender by consumers.  Similarly, certain cuts of beef, no matter how high their USDA Quality Grade, may not be as tender for some consumers.

To address these issues and provide consumers with a more useful purchasing tool, USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) worked with academia and industry to develop an accurate system to determine when consumers perceive beef cuts to be either tender or very tender.  Based on an objective scale, the system ensures that specific beef cuts consistently meet these established thresholds.  Thanks to the collaborative efforts between AMS and these groups, approved beef processors can now market products as USDA-Certified Tender or Very Tender through product labeling, advertisements, and promotions.

“USDA is pleased to offer this new verification program that provides American producers with another marketing tool to promote their quality products,” said AMS Administrator Anne Alonzo.  “The tenderness label also gives consumers additional information to use when making their purchasing decisions.”

On June 30, 2013, Cargill became the first processor to have a program certified by USDA.  There are two other programs under review – one other beef processor and a major grocery store chain.

“We know that beef attributes such as tenderness, flavor and juiciness are important to consumers and the long-term health of the American beef industry hinges on our ability to consistently deliver the best possible beef eating experience,” stated John Keating, president of Cargill.

Consumers should start to see beef cuts labeled as USDA Certified Tender or USDA Certified Very Tender as early as Fall 2013.

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Suzanne Holcombe
Aug 12, 2013

Consumers are more interested in a 'humanely raised' certification than 'tender.' The USDA should work with its Animal Welfare Information Center on such a label for all meat inspected by the USDA.

Richard kanak
Aug 12, 2013

Apparently agribusiness has once again succeeded in getting the government to supply meaningless marketing support.

They should ne more concerned with the use of drugs in raising these animals. Meaningless smoke and mirrors marketing.

Mike Wallace
Aug 14, 2013

My advice to both previous commentors, before becoming self appointed experts on the above article, you should have a working knowledge on the entire industry. In short go out and buy enough land to start raising your own herd, then take a side job working in a meat packing plant, or a feed lot.

Anthony Bourdain
Aug 16, 2013

Lots of people ask me to explain the difference between steaks. I get it – it’s confusing. Some of that’s because names change over the years and many cuts of meat have several different names (often tied to different geographical areas). Also, many cuts are named after the anatomical location of the animal they come from. Since many if not most beef buyers are not experts in the anatomy of a Market Steer, these names are not really that useful in helping to pick out a tender cut from a tough cut.

Basically, your typical “high end” steaks are the tender ones. These include the New York Strip Steak, Ribeye Steak, and the Filet Mignon Steak—the most tender steak of them all. So, you ask… if the Filet Mignon is the most tender steak, what’s the second most tender? Surprise – it’s not the New York Strip Steak or the Ribeye Steak. It’s the Flat Iron Steak, which comes from another inactive muscle at the front of the animal. But, keep in mind that it can be difficult to find Flat Iron Steaks.

Rule of thumb when ordering: Anything from the animal’s middle meats (Loin and Rib) will be the most tender pieces of meat because these muscles work the least and anything from the Chuck and Round will be more tough as they work the most (again, this isn’t always the case as the Flat Iron Steak example mentioned above).

However, since today's consumers often look at other terms in the meat case at their grocery store such as the word "steak" when they are buying beef to grill at home, they can end up with a tough cut of meat. Take the Eye of Round Steak for example. This is a very tough cut of meat that happens to be called a steak just like the Filet Minon Steak.

Bottom line, this program will really be helpful for the American consumer if it helps today’s consumers identify these tender cuts from the more tough cuts. Thank you USDA!

Dec 24, 2013

such a profound marketing ploy is equally mysterious in terms of the fact that almost no information about this change is available in the mainstream media... there is certainley no critical article to the fact/ just cargill propaganda. so the american consumer is assumed to be too stupid to know the difderence between a ribeye and a round roast, select cut and choicd cut? now they can combat skyrocketing costs by feeding us sub-par, sub-select utility grade beef from a big disgusting plant.

Dan Dickinson
Jan 24, 2014

So the label "USDA Tender" is totally a marketing device and has nothing to do with quality. Now I understand why the same cut with the same markings from three different stores are of such radically different quality. In this case, the USDA mark has nothing at all to do with quality, Only with the specific cut.

Jan 31, 2014

I just noticed Safeway advertising T-Bone steals with a grade of USDA Tender. They were cheaper than what I've been seeing. Now, I know why, they are likely what was formerly select before that it was called Good. The fact is, its too tough for me.

USDA Choice was also described a very Tender, so if you get very tender, it is probably what was called choice.

There are several lower grades, but most are not sold in a grocery store.

Apr 08, 2014

short and simple everyone. and mr bourdain !
utility' aka 'certified tender' ha'
as stewie would say...
dont forget everything is certified !
now a days ...

Apr 24, 2014

I expected a link to how to qualify for tender or very tender grade. Years ago, as a beef producer, I attended a presentation by UNL extension which included a photo of the minimum standard marbling for choice used in training USDA inspectors. The grade is objective, so a full explanation is appropriate.

Aimee Hachigian-Gould
Apr 25, 2014

There is a common misconception that higher marbling carcasses of beef are more tender than lower marbled carcassses. Tenderness has nothing to do with USDA Quality Grade (Prime, Choice, Select) which is a function of marbling and everything to do with the shear force characteristics of the muscle within the steak itself. The Warner-Bratzler Shear Test which uses a device to determine the amount of force it takes to shear though a standardized 1 cm2 muscle sample is the most common way to determine the level of tenderness. The actual tenderness of the muscle is a function of genetics (Bos taurus British breeds such as Angus are generally more tender than Bos indicus cattle such as Braman cattle and DNA testing is able to determine the presence of various tenderness markers), aging (usually dry aging where the natural muscle enzymes break down the tough muscle fibers over a period of at least 14 days or more of hanging in a climate controlled cooler)or the use of chemical meat tenderizers (often with the enzyme papain from papayas or an acid). As a beef producer that markets locker beef under a branded label and Montana State University Extension certified 4-H carcass grader that has trained many 4-Hers for national meats identification competitions, I can attest to the above. It would be interesting to know the process by which the USDA is ascertaining the tenderness. Are Warner-Bratzler tests being carried out on the carcasses?

Apr 25, 2014

Thank you Anthony Bourdain for the best reply. Like Rex, I too wanted to know how they differentiate for this new grade. As a rancher who regularly has his own beef butchered, I can confirm that two T-bones from very similar animals with roughly the same marbling, can be very different in tenderness. Quite often it could be the age of the animal. For my own freezer, I much prefer the younger beef that had an easy life not working hard, laying around in one of my corrals until he attained a high level of finish on grain. That way, even the hard working muscles that Anthony very correctly points out, can be tender too. Then you get to how you prepare it and either add to the result or ruin it. For several years now I've used the Sous Vide system and grill to finish, it doesn't get any better than that. Then again, I'll bet Anthony could show us all how to REALLY prepare a great steak!

May 21, 2014

If you are having a hard time finding flat iron steaks watch for cross rib roasts on sale at a local store .The flat iron comes off the x-rib.In some market areas that cut used to end up as ground beef.The name flat iron never went well with my Blackhawk customers when I was cutting meat in Danville[most of that cut became hamburger]Their loss my gain.You should be able to find them at most major chains.

May 22, 2014

I agree with other posts that the requirements on how to meet this certification were not explained. Is it a true analytical test or just a marketing phrase? And to the first poster, Suzanne, I do not believe most consumers are more interested in "humanely raised" certification. But, I don't have the data and neither does she.

Jun 10, 2014

I don't get it. USDA Select can now be USDA Tender?But the meat doesn't carry a USDA Select label? How do I know what I'm paying for? Safeway had Ranchers Reserve.....Select for sure! Now they have USDA Tender. Any change, besides the price, isn't noted by labeling. Keep making changes for the lowest I.Q.. Why not just put a smiley face on it???

Ruth C
Jul 03, 2014

Sorry folks, but a lot of people know next to nothing about cuts of meat. Where are they going to learn in a world of fast food since most junior high and high schools no longer offer Home Economics classes. The average person takes a best guess so certified tender is as good a grading system as anything for steak when the average customer is going to be constrained by price to buy grade or choice.

Super Steak
Jul 10, 2014

Soft meat does not equal flavorful meat.
The new grade sounds like a marketing ploy to fool the masses into believing they are buying something better than it truly is when compared to other common and similarly priced steaks and roasts. Don't believe me, easy to test for yourself. Go buy some US Prime and some Ranchers Reserve (about the same price at Cxxxxo vs Sxxxxxy), prep the same and eat. They are not even in the same league!!! Try another Chain that sells the usual US Choice. Choice was the standard for all the years I can recall and I have been eating steak more than once per week since the 1970's. The US Choice wins every time over the "tender/select".

This reminds me of the "Wet-Aging" nonsense. It seemed to come shortly after the meat cutters disappeared from the grocery stores and the meat became mostly centrally processed resulting in vacuum packed primals being sent to the retail outlets. I am not saying this is a bad thing but primals sitting around for several weeks is a result of cheaper and easier for mass production business decision making that somebody got the idea to call aged for your benefit. Aged needs to be dry for substantial beneficial changes.

Sr. Engineer
Jul 13, 2014

Click on the Agricultural Marketing Service above and you will find more information on grading than you will ever want to know. From the home page click on Grading and eventually you will get to US Standards for Grades of Carcass Beef (1/31/97). For those who think that beef "isn't what it used to be", they are correct, it's not. The standards were formulated back in 1916 and became "official" in 1926. In 1950 "Prime" and "Choice" grades were combined into "Prime", "Good" became "Choice" and "Commercial" was divided into "Good" (for the top half, mostly younger) and "Commercial" for the bottom half. In 1987 "Good" became "Select" and "This change provided the industry an improved grade term to use in the marketing of this type of beef to consumers who desire and alternative to Choice." So now "Select" is what the better half of "Commercial" was over 60 years ago. All of the grading is mostly based on marbling and as several people have noted above may have little to do with "Tenderness".
As for the "USDA Tender" and "USDA Very Tender" marks, these may be used by processors who qualify under a program outlined in document STELPRDC5095042 "Operational Requirements for USDA Certification of ASTM International Tenderness Marketing Claims" issued in December 2012. This references ASTM International Standard F2343 "Standard Test Method for Livestock, Meat and Poultry Evaluation Devices" among others. I did not look up any of the referenced standards because if you want to read an ASTM standard you usually have to buy it.
So there are standards and machines to evaluate "tenderness". How effective they are I don't know, but at least with an ASTM standard the test results should be consistent and repetitive. I think that after looking at this stuff you will be glad the USDA does evaluate the food we eat, even though they might be more informative about how they ago about it.

Ben Weaver
Jul 31, 2014

@aimee - thanks for the great question. The operational requirements and laboratory proficiency testing for shear force are performed in accordance with <a href="; rel="nofollow">ASTM International Standard F 2341</a>. This program of controlled tenderness is operated on a system approach utilizing random sampling of product. Carcasses used in the USDA Tender and Very Tender marketing program must have controlled genetics, age, product characteristics/handling, etc. USDA Tender/Very Tender is utilized on the most tender muscles found in the tenderloin (filet), flat iron, ribeye, loin, and center top butt cuts of meat.

Ben Weaver
Jul 31, 2014

@BP - thanks for your question. As explained in the answer to @aimee, USDA Tender and USDA Very Tender marketing programs are controlled through objective Sliced Shear Force or Warner-Bratzler testing using controlled systems programs.

Ben Weaver
Jul 31, 2014

@DA - thanks for the question. USDA grades (Prime, Choice, Select) are voluntary marketing claims as are USDA Tender and USDA Very Tender. USDA Grades and marketing claims are voluntary tools that industry can use to help promote and communicate quality and wholesomeness to consumers. Products may or may not be graded (including labeling) to be marketed as USDA Tender/Very Tender, but meet the <a href="; rel="nofollow">requirements of testing</a>.

Michelle Ratcliffe
Oct 29, 2014

Very helpful info. I like knowing that a shear test is used to evaluate "tenderness". How come food writers and TV consumer reporters haven't picked up on this?

Nick Field
Dec 02, 2015

One of our grocers who had a quality meat program switched to certified tender. After discussing this with two managers and the head butcher the common answer was that this signified beef that is half angus and half choice.

I wonder if this like being half pregnant?

After this change I stopped buying meat at this grocer.

I wonder what mensa designed this marketing ploy?

Brad James
Jan 03, 2016

Bought a USDA Tender Prime Rib for Christmas. Fabulous. The best prime rib I've ever had and I've had more than a few. Many were tough and disappointing including CAB. Finally, USDA has found a meaningful grading category that is reliable.

Dirk van Loon
Feb 20, 2020

The American Meat Science Association says on its website that certified tender beef meets certain requirement as to cuts of beef, etc. It also states that: "Additionally, only inherently tender meat can qualify. This refers to meat which has been subject to further processing such as margination or mechanical tenderization."

Is this true of all beef in the US labeled in store as "USDA Tender"?

Thank you for your reply.