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Grading Meat the American Way: The Beefy Truth Behind Those Labels
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Grading Meat the American Way: The Beefy Truth Behind Those Labels



Shauna Davis

Hey there, folks! Given that this is Veggicated I figured I’d kick off the blog with a sizzling topic, how meat is graded in the good ‘ol United States. It’s time to separate the rib-eyes from the baloney, if you know what I mean!

Now, you may be thinking, “Meat grading? What’s that all about?” Well, let me break it down for you in my own unique way.

What is meat grading?

In the United States, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) grades meat based on its quality which is concluded from a mandatory visual inspection to ensure that the animal was healthy and fit for human consumption. Additionally, the USDA conducts a marbling measurement. Marbling is a fancy word for the little white flecks of fat that you see on your steak. Marbling is an important factor to consider as it affects the overall flavor and tenderness of the meat.

Grading is done at processing plants, usually at the time of slaughter. The meat is then inspected and graded by a USDA meat grader who has been trained to recognize the differences between the grades of meat. To determine the grade, the grader will look at the amount of marbling, maturity (the age of the animal), the color and texture of the meat and the amount of fat that is covering the meat. The grader then assigns a grade per the USDA standards.

For poultry, the grader looks at the shape of the bird, the amount of meat on the bird, and the freedom from defects such as bruises and broken bones.

There are 4 main grades of meat: Prime, Choice, Select, and Standard. Prime is the creme de la creme, the beefy elite! It represents the highest quality with the most marbling, while standard is the lowest quality, showing traces of marbling and is often sold at a more affordable price point and as a store brand product. You can easily find these grades on a shield-shaped sticker on the meat's packaging.

Now, you may be thinking, “But why does meat need to be graded? Can’t I just pick out whatever looks good to me?” Well, in short, yes, you could do that. But meat grading ensures that you’re getting a consistent level of quality, no matter where you buy your meat from. Plus, if you’re looking to impress your dinner guests, serving up a prime steak is sure to do the trick!   

So, the big question…

Is meat grading actually truthful?

In general, yes. The USDA has strict guidelines and procedures in place to ensure that meat is graded accurately and consistently. Graders are trained and certified by the USDA, and they follow standardized grading procedures to ensure consistency across the industry. However, it is important to note that meat grading is not a perfect system. There is some subjectivity involved in the grading process, and there is always potential for human error. Additionally, some critics have argued that the grading system may not account for certain factors that can affect the quality of meat, such as the animal’s diet and living conditions.

So, the next time you’re at the grocery store, take a look at the meat section and see if you can spot the different grades. And if you’re feeling fancy, go ahead and splurge on a prime steak. I won’t judge. Better yet, purchase your meat from your local butcher to get an inside perspective, plus you also get to support your local small business!

So, where do you shop for your meat and what do you look for when purchasing?

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