Meat is a hot topic in the US. It’s important to stay knowledgeable on the quality and grading to keep your family safe and healthy.
Grading of Meat and Poultry
The inspection and grading of meat and poultry are two separate programs within the
U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Inspection for wholesomeness is mandatory
and is paid for out of tax dollars. Grading for quality is voluntary, and the service is
requested and paid for by meat and poultry producers/processors*
After the meat and poultry are inspected for wholesomeness, producers and processors
may request to have the products graded for quality by a licensed Federal grader. USDA
grades are based on nationally uniform Federal standards of quality.
USDA Grades for Meat and Poultry
Beef is graded as whole carcasses in two ways:
Quality grades – for tenderness, juiciness and flavor
Yield grades – for the amount of usable lean meat on the carcass. There are 8 quality
grades for beef. Quality grades are based on the amount of marbling (flecks of fat within
the lean), color and maturity
Prime grade is produced from young, well fed beef cattle. It has abundant
marbling and is generally sold in restaurants and hotels. Prime roasts and steaks
are excellent for dry-heat cooking (broiling, roasting or grilling)
Choice grade 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
to dry-heat cooking. Many of the less tender cuts, such as those from the rump,
round and blade chuck can also be cooked with dry heat if not uncovered. Such
cuts will be most tender if braised, roasted or simmered with a small amount of
liquid in a tightly covered pan.
Select grade 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 (loin, rib, sirloin)
should be cooked over dry-heat. Other cuts should be marinated before cooking
or braised to obtain maximum tenderness and flavor.
Standard and Commercial Grades
Standard and commercial grades are frequently sold as un-graded or as “store
Utility, Cutter and Canner Grades
Utility, Cutter and Canner Grades are seldom, if ever, sold at retail but are used
instead to make ground beef and processed products.
Yield grades range from “1” to “5” and indicate the amount of usable meat from a
carcass. Yield grade 1 is the highest grade and denotes the greatest ratio of lean to fat;
yield grade 5 is the lowest yield ratio. Yield grade is most useful when purchasing a side
or carcass of beef for the freezer.
There are five grades for veal/calf: prime, choice, good, standard and utility.
Prime and choice grades are juicier and more flavorful than the lower grades. Because of
the young age of animals, the meat will be light grayish-pink to light pink, fairly firm and
velvety. The bones are small, soft and quite red. Cuts such as chops can be cooked by
the dry-heat methods of roasting, grilling or broiling
There are five grades for lamb. Normally only two grades are found at the retail level –
prime and choice. Lower grades of lamb and mutton – good, utility and cull – are seldom
marked with a grade. Lamb is produced from animals less than a year old. Since the
quality of lamb varies according to the age of the animal, it is advisable to buy lamb that
has been USDA graded.
Prime grade is very high in tenderness, juiciness and flavor. Its marbling
enhances both flavor and juiciness
Choice grade has slightly less marbling than prime, but still is of very high
Pork is not graded with USDA quality grades as it is generally produced from young
animals that have been bred and fed to produce more uniformly tender meat. Appearance
is an important guide in buying fresh pork. Look for cuts with a relatively small amount
of fat over the outside and with meat that is firm and grayish pink in color. For best
flavor and tenderness, meat should have a small amount of marbling.
The USDA grades for poultry are A, B and C
Grade A is the highest quality and the only grade that is likely to be seen at the
retail level. This grade indicates that the poultry products are virtually free from
Grades B and C
Grades B and C poultry are usually used in further-processed products where the
poultry meat is cut up, chopped or ground. If sold at retail, they are usually not