Thursday, January 13, 2011

What do Meat Grades Mean?

Several months ago, for reasons I cannot now remember, I google searched about different meat grades. Perhaps because I wondered "what is really in a hot dog" or "what is 'institutional beef?'" I had alot of questions about why expensive restaurant meat tastes so good, and meat purchased in a supermarket tastes not quite as good, but good enough, and then meat in a hospital cafeteria or a school lunch is on the iffy side. But we all agree that all that meat is safe right? (By their standards, not ours, people) Do people stand a greater risk getting sick from a hamburger bought at a school lunch room than they do from their own kitchens? I don't believe so, industrially raised meat is industrially raised meat. But there is a huge difference in price. And why is that? What is the difference between different grades of meat? And are lower grades of meat still safe?

Another thing that I have cherished throughout my blog project has been finding government pamphlets or papers that show exactly what the USDA or the FDA has been thinking about. What questions have they had bopping in the back of their brains enough that they hired some researchers and writers to put together an official paper? I have found several of them. The USDA likes to know what we eat, where we eat things, what motivates us to buy certain items and to a lesser extent some of the nutrition behind what we eat. They are after all, the agricultural lobby. Let me repeat: The USDA is in essence an agricultural lobby, whose function is to promote the consumption of US Agricultural products both at home and abroad. We shouldn't fault them for that, it is not a bad thing. But to get the impression that they are a government agency whose function is to make food safe for all of us, that's not right. It is confusing though for sure because the USDA oversees the school lunch program, and the food nutrition guidelines, as well as RDA's (recommended daily allowances). Their power today is slightly larger than a simple lobby. But they really are a complicated lobby.

But in an interesting paper that the USDA put together entitled How to Buy Meat, The USDA reminds us of several important points. It is law that safe handling requirements are printed on all foods that are sold as 'not ready to eat'. Safe handling instructions include things like 'thaw in the refrigerator' and 'keep cold foods cold...' I always wondered about this, because they are (by law) printed on the minimal packaging on the meat that I buy from my CSA. Never mind that I thaw my meat on the counter top, flouting all USDA recommendations. But the recommendations are printed there because it is the law, not because my small purveyor of meat feels that I should be handling my meat that way.

The paper also reminds us that 5-7 ounces of meat count as 2-3 servings within the USDA guidelines. Someone should put that tidbit on the outside of a MacDonald's Third Pounder Burger box. I wonder if that would mean more to some people than simple calorie counts? "Attention: you are about to eat 2-3 servings of beef"

But back to the meat grades, because I know that is what you really want to know. Meat grades were created to tell you about the age of the animal and the amount of marbling within the flesh. Higher grades of meat have more marbling. The grades are strict, ensuring that a Choice piece of meat in Texas will be similar in character to a Choice piece of meat in New Hampshire. Not all meat is graded by the USDA, such as the meat I buy from my CSA. In those cases is it best to know your buyer.

There are 8 cuts of beef in all, Prime, Choice, Select, Standard, Commercial, Utility, Cutter and Canner. Have you ever even heard of some of those grades? Well, I can pretty much guarantee that you have eaten all of them. Prime, Choice, Select and Standard meat all comes from cattle that are younger than three years. Commercial, Utility, Cutter and Canner all come from cattle that are between 3 and 7 years of age. And of the two groups, the higher the grade the more the marbling. The first issue I have with the grading process is that a grass fed cow may take up to three years to fully fatten, making the window very small to process the beef. I would hate to think that a high quality grass fed steer would be classified as Commercial Beef just because it was slaughtered at three and a half years.

Where do you find the different grades? Prime is purchased mostly by hotels and restaurants. Choice and Select are what you would find with their grades displayed in your grocery store. Standard and Commercial are often sold as 'ungraded meat' or 'brand name meat'. Utility, Cutter and Canner meats are rarely ever sold uncooked at retail markets, but are often sold at wholesale and made into meat products like hot dogs. I would bet that some of this lower grade, older and less tender meat is what is making it into government subsidized foods and food programs. However, I am not going to say that here because such speculation would be irresponsible. I will let you do that for me in the comments section.

I wanted to relay this info, because I have heard so many urban legends about the 'Grade Z' meat at Taco Bell. And likely they are not getting Prime cuts. But there is no such thing as 'Grade Z' meat. Nor is there meat that is graded as 'Not for Human Consumption'. All meat that is sold with USDA gradings along the full gamut is the same except for it's marbling and age. However, safety and nutrient quality...well, I don't know about that. You might have to look for words like 'certified humanely raised' or 'pastured' or 'grass-fed' to get that kind of assurance. If nothing else I found this paper interesting, and wanted you to be more educated about the matter.


  1. This was a fascinating read. Thanks so much for sharing. I had no idea about the different grades or about the serving quantity.

  2. Yeah, you are completely wrong about the Grade Z meat. It most certainly does exist. I served in the US Navy for 10 years and we brought on tons of "Grade Z" meat to feed our nation's sailors. It had 2" letters on the side of the box that read "Grade Z Meat: For Prison And Military Use Only." This is not a joke. I personally carried at least a cumulative ton of this stuff while on loading food to the ship. Yeah, that's right...our nations murderers and rapists eat the same food we cook for our nation's heros. Sad isn't it?