Inspection and Grading of Meats

USDA Registration Mark All meat produced for public consumption in the United States is subject to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspection. Daily inspections are done at the processing plants to ensure that strict sanitary guidelines are followed. All beef is labeled with a stamp indicating where it was processed. Inspections do not indicate a meat’s quality, only that it was handled in a sanitary and safe manner.

Quality Grades of Beef

USDA grading provides a voluntary, uniform system by which consumers and commercial buyers can:

  • measure differences in the quality of meats
  • make price-quality comparisons
  • determine eating qualities of meat, i.e. tenderness, juiciness and flavor

The grades are based on two main criteria: the degree of marbling in the beef and the maturity of the animal.

USDA Prime is the highest quality beef and comprises only about 3% of beef sold. It is well-marbled with thick coverings of firm fat.

USDA Choice is the most common grade served in quality restaurants and sold in retail markets. Choice meat is well-marbled, but has less fat than prime. It produces a tender and juicy product.

USDA Select has minimal marbling and it is not as tender or flavorful as higher grades. It is served in value-conscious restaurants and sold in retail markets. Don’t let the name “select” confuse you in thinking that this is a choice cut recommended by the USDA.

USDA Standard has only traces of marbling and is not as flavorful. The inexpensive cost will be tempting but, the poor quality product will not create a good meal.

Special Beef Designations

Certified Angus Beef (CAB) undergoes scrutiny beyond the normal grading guidelines. The beef must pass 10 specifications for quality not required of regular USDA Choice and 9 specifications not required of USDA Prime. These science-based standards ensure every bite is tasty, tender and juicy. CAB Prime Beef products represent the most robust and juiciest steaks available–normally only found in the best high-end restaurants touting exclusive, high-quality beef.

The terms Angus Beef or Black Angus Beef are loosely and commonly misused and/or confused with CAB; this is especially common in the restaurant industry. The brand or name Certified Angus Beef cannot be legally used by an establishment that is not licensed to do so.

Natural Grade is from Certified Angus Beef cattle that have been fed a vegetarian diet and have never been given antibiotics or hormones to increase yield. Not only does CAB Natural meet the brand’s standards for all-natural beef, it also meets the brand’s marbling standards and 10 specifications for quality, ensuring every bite is abundantly flavorful and tender.

Kobe Beef is from cattle of the Wagyu breed, raised in the hills above Kobe, Japan. At times they are hand-fed high-energy feed, including beer and beer mash, and hand-massaged to reduce stress. Needless-to-say, kobe beef is generally considered to be a delicacy, renowned for its flavor, tenderness, and fatty, well-marbled texture.

Grass-fed Beef have been raised exclusively in pastures on a grass diet.

Organic Beef is produced without added hormones, pesticides, or other chemicals, though requirements for organic labeling vary widely.

Kosher Beef has been certified to have been processed in a prescribed manner in accordance with Jewish dietary laws. A manufacturing plant is required to be inspected and certified.

Aging Meats

Aging beef allows the muscles to relax and become tender. Typically, the initial aging process occurs when the meat is transported after slaughtering. Beef can be aged for longer periods to increase its tenderness and flavor characteristics.

Wet Aging is storing vacuum-packed pre-cut beef under refrigeration for up to 6 weeks, allowing natural enzymes to break down connective tissue, which tenderizes and flavors the meat. Note that when opening the package, an unpleasant aroma is released, which will dissipate quickly.

Dry Aging involves hanging fresh meat in a controlled temperature and humidity environment for up to 6 weeks. Because the meat is cut after aging and there is product lost, it is generally more expensive than wet aged meat.