USDA Beef Quality Grades

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Perhaps you’ve just come out of your first prime steak experience. You wonder to yourself: why can’t ALL steaks taste this good?

The answer (mostly): beef quality grades.

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) grades beef based on degree of marbling and the maturity (estimated age) of the animal at slaughter. The three top quality ratings are primarily what you’ll see in your local supermarket: Prime, Choice and Select.

The USDA started grading beef in 1927. Since then, these gradings have become a trusted symbol that reassures consumers they are purchasing safe, high-quality American beef.

Originally, the USDA grading system was developed as a marketing technique to combat the agricultural recession. Farmers created this grading system to generate a demand for fattier (marbled) meat from corn-fed, purebred cattle.  

The 8 USDA Beef Grades

“Beef is graded in two ways, quality grades for tenderness, juiciness, and flavour and yield grades for the amount of usable lean meat from the carcass.” USDA website.

When it comes to grading beef, marbling is everything. The more marbling, the higher the quality grading.

There are eight beef quality grades (8) set by the USDA. Beef is assessed by highly-skilled USDA meat graders that determine where it is categorized.

Listed from highest to lowest quality:

  1. U.S. Prime
  2. U.S. Choice
  3. U.S. Select
  4. U.S. Standard
  5. U.S. Commercial
  6. U.S. Utility
  7. U.S. Cutter
  8. U.S. Canner
What About Wagyu Beef?
Many people mistake Wagyu for a beef grade, but it is not.  Wagyu stands for “Japanese cow.”

Wagyu beef is based on the Japanese Meat Grading Association (JMGA) guidelines. Wagyu is graded based on a 1 to 5 scoring system, with one representing poor and five representing excellent.

Unlike USDA grading, Wagyu is assessed on the color and texture of the meat and fat. Like USDA grading, marbling is also assessed.  

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US Prime

Prime beef is produced from young, well-fed steers (male cattle) where the marbling is abundant (8 to 13 percent fat). The age of the steers selected range between 9 to 42 months. They are not produced from heifers (younger female cattle) because heifers are used for breeding, and therefore the meat is tougher.

Cattle raised on grain will have more marbling than grass-fed beef. What’s interesting about this is that many people prefer grass-fed beef (with less marbling) because of its flavor.

Marbling Explained
Marbling is the white streaks of fat within lean sections of meat. It gets this name because it looks similar to a marble pattern. These white streaks melt away when cooking, hence the term “mouth-watering flavor.”  

Where to buy prime beef. Since only the top 2.9% of all beef is graded as prime, it is generally only sold in high-end restaurants and hotels (of course, sometimes you can find it in supermarkets & via mail order steak companies).

Best cooking method. Prime beef is excellent for dry-heat cooking, such as broiling, roasting, or grilling. Top-quality restaurants will dry-age their meat for approximately 21 days before cooking your steak to perfection.

Certain cuts of beef will have more marbling than others. For example, beef rib and short loin are one of the most marbled sections. Steak cuts that come from the short loin include T-Bone, Strip, and Porterhouse

US Choice

Choice beef is high-quality beef that comes from younger cattle, but it has less marbling than prime (4 to 10 percent). Choice grade beef accounts for approximately half of all graded beef. The age of the steers selected range between 9 to 96 months.

Where to buy choice beef. You can purchase choice grade beef from restaurants and grocery stores. For example, Walmart began stocking choice grade steak in 2012. Regarding value for money, choice beef will give you a tasty steak at a fairly affordable price.  

Best cooking method. There are various cuts of beef that are graded as choice. Ribs and loin cuts tend to be the best meat in this category, and when cooked properly, they are tender, juicy, and full of flavor.

You can grill and roast more tender cuts like rump and round (back leg) steak. Be mindful because you can easily overcook choice beef and make it dry and tough. 

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US Select

Select beef is leaner than prime and choice beef cuts because it has a lot less marbling (2 to 4 percent). Since it does not have as much (if any) marbling, it may be dry, tough in texture, and lacking in flavor.            

Where to buy select beef: You can purchase select beef in grocery stores.

Best cooking method. Moist heat methods are the best ways to cook select grade beef. Select grade beef steak cuts include blade chuck and lean steak with limited marbling. The types of moist heat methods available include stewing, steaming, braising, and poaching. Irish Beef Stew and Beef Masala Curry are moist heat recipe examples.

Standard and Commercial

USDA beef grading is completely optional. Standard and commercial beef grades are often sold as ungraded or as store brand beef.

Cattle producers who would like their beef to be graded must pay a service fee. USDA grading differs from mandatory meat inspections. Meat inspections are required by law, but they do not consider the quality and tenderness of the beef.

Since standard and commercial beef is ungraded, you run the risk of buying beef that lacks flavor and is not as tender as USDA graded alternatives. 

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Utility, Cutter, and Canning Grades

This beef is a lower grade of meat that does not make it to our plate as a steak. This grade of beef is produced from older cows in the herd. For example, if a cow is no longer “reproductively fit,” a farmer may opt to retire this animal. This beef is leaner and has less fatty marbling, making it more suitable for this beef grade. Of the three, canning is the lowest grade of meat produced.

Where to buy utility, cutter, and canning beef: You cannot buy this beef unprocessed at any restaurant or grocery store. However, you can buy the output of this beef in the form of ground mince, jerky, hot dogs, and dog food. 

That said, if you prefer to ground your beef at home, you may be able to arrange to buy this unprocessed grade at your local butcher. If you want to do this, you may need to include some fat, as utility beef is extremely lean.

Best cooking method. There are heaps of different ways to cook ground beef. Some of the best ways include making hamburgers, spaghetti meatballs, and tacos.

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Is it Ever ‘OK’ to Ignore the Grading?

It’s been almost a century since the USDA established their grading system. Since then, the Department of Agriculture has continued to improve their standards to evolve with the industry and consumer needs.

When I am dining at a steakhouse, I value these gradings because they give me comfort that I am devouring one of the finest quality steaks in the United States. USDA grading has a lot of strengths – mainly that you have a great guide to understanding how fatty the beef cut is and the age of the animal.

However, there are some weaknesses in the system. Three key criteria that are not factored into the existing grading assessment. These are:

  1. The cut you are buying.
  2. What the animal has been fed (e.g., grass or grain-fed).
  3. How the animal has been raised.

This is important to consider because grass-fed cattle often create less marbling but deliver more flavor.

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Kelly Pettitt

By Kelly Pettitt

When she’s not working on the train tracks, Kelly is a proud carnivore who travels the globe on the hunt for the ultimate steak experience. When she’s not devouring a New York Strip or chomping down on a rack of ribs, she is mixing up a dirty martini or sipping on a full bodied shiraz.