How Is Beef Graded?

In the United States, beef is graded on two scales: the quality of the meat and the quantity available on the carcass. By the time beef reaches the consumer, only the quality grade matters. Prime, Choice and Select are available at retail, with Prime being the best quality available.

Prime beef comes from young, well-fed cattle and has abundant marbling. Choice is still high quality meat, but contains less marbling and is drier when cooked. Select is leaner, and is less juicy with less marbling. Within each grade, there may also be "plus" or "minus" distinctions to describe the relative amount of marbling in the meat. Prime, Choice and Select are carefully monitored distinctions, while terms like "blue ribbon" and other adjectives added by retailers have no relation to the actual quality of the beef.

In addition to the top grades, there are five additional categories. Standard and Commercial grade beef contains the least marbling, and may be sold as a supermarket's house brand or sold wholesale to restaurants. Utility, Cutter and Canner grade beef is poorer in quality, and may consist of mis-cut primals or other portions of a beef carcass too small to sell individually. These categories of beef are used in canned goods or other industrially prepared foodstuffs where the presentation of the beef is not important.