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Check the Label and Bring it to the Table – USDA Grade Labels Explained

Posted by Craig A. Morris, Deputy Administrator of the AMS Livestock, Poultry, and Seed Program in Food and Nutrition
Jun 29, 2017
What's Your Beef infographic
Back by popular demand, AMS has updated some of our most popular infographics with additional tips and pointers. Click to view a larger version.

Summer heat, sizzling grills, and a night sky filled with fireworks - here comes Fourth of July! I really love this time of year. It’s another opportunity to grill up a feast to share with my family and friends. It is also a great time to share my knowledge about the USDA grade shields!

It’s a good idea to look to the USDA grade shields to help you select the best quality for your Independence Day gatherings. You’ve probably seen the USDA grades on packages of fresh or frozen products, but our infographicsWhat’s Your Beef and Poultry 101— can help you better understand what these shields mean to you.

My agency, USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, defines the quality grades for a wide variety of picnic items including beef and poultry products. All across the country, highly-skilled USDA graders examine these traditional picnic staples and evaluate their quality characteristics using grade standards defined by AMS.

When it comes to beef, quality grades reflect the relative tenderness, juiciness and flavor you can expect, with the best beef labeled as USDA’s Prime, Choice, and Select.

  • Prime beef has a good deal of marbling (the amount of fat streaking within the cut of meat), and is often featured in restaurants. Prime roasts and steaks are excellent for broiling, roasting, or grilling.
  • Choice beef is high quality as well, but with less marbling than Prime. Choice roasts and steaks from the loin and rib are particularly tender, juicy, and flavorful. Many less tender cuts, such a chuck roast, are better if braised, roasted, or simmered with a small amount of liquid in a covered pan.
  • Select beef is very uniform in quality and usually 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. Marinating before cooking or braising Select cuts helps produce the best results.

In terms of poultry products, USDA Grade A is what you will almost always find in supermarkets—you’ll see the shield on everything from big, plump turkeys to trays of neatly arranged chicken drumsticks. Even boneless skinless chicken breasts or thighs can be USDA Grade A, assuring you that they’ve been properly trimmed and are free of discolorations or other quality defects. You can also find the USDA grade shield on marinated products, and even cooked products, labeled with “Prepared from USDA Grade A.”

The USDA grade shield, along with the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service’s (FSIS) seal of inspection, assure you that not only is the product safe and wholesome, but of the best quality available in the marketplace.

Whether you are purchasing USDA Prime steaks or USDA Grade A chicken thighs, understanding these USDA shields can help you prepare the best picnic this Fourth of July holiday. Happy Birthday, America!

For additional information, cooking tips, and pointers, check out our infographics on these USDA grade shields.

Category/Topic: Food and Nutrition