The beef grading system developed by the United States Department of Agriculture is a voluntary grading system based on the meat's maturity and level of fat marbling. These two factors are indicators of the beef’s tenderness. Beef that is given a higher grade is usually from younger cattle and has more fat marbling.
To receive a USDA grading on beef, manufacturers must pay for a trained inspector to grade the beef at the slaughterhouse. Once the beef is graded, the manufacturer must comply with labeling requirements set by the Food Safety and Inspection Service. Consumers can find the USDA grading on the package label.
There are eight grades of beef designated by the USDA, only the top five of which are usually sold to consumers. Lower grades are most often used for processing and use in canned goods.
U.S. Prime – This is the highest grade of beef with the most fat marbling. This meat is very tender and only accounts for about 2.9% of all graded beef. U.S. Prime is usually reserved for high end dining establishments. Because this beef has such a high level of fat marbling, it is excellent for dry heat cooking methods.
U.S. Choice – Choice beef is widely available to consumers in supermarkets and restaurants. This beef has a good amount of fat marbling, although less than U.S. Prime. U.S. Choice accounts for roughly 50% of all graded beef. This beef can typically be cooked with either dry or moist heat methods without causing excessive dryness. U.S. Choice is an excellent economic alternative to U.S. Prime.
U.S. Select – Select beef is also widely available in the retail market. It is much more lean than U.S. Choice and tends to be less tender or juicy. U.S, Select was formerly labeled as “Good.” Due to the low fat content in this meat, it should be reserved for moist heat cooking methods to prevent drying.
U.S. Standard and U.S. Commercial – Standard and Commercial grades are very low in fat content and may be considerably less tender. When sold in the retail market they typically go ungraded or are labeled under the store brand name and sold for lower prices.
Utility, Cutter, and Canner Grades – These grades may be completely devoid of fat marbling or cut from older animals. These grades are typically reserved for making processed meat products and canned goods.