How is Beef Graded? A Guide to USDA Beef Quality Grades

When shopping for beef at the grocery store or ordering a steak at a restaurant, you may notice terms like “Prime”, “Choice”, and “Select” used to describe the quality. These designations refer to the USDA beef grading system. But what do they mean and how are they determined?

This article provides a comprehensive overview of how beef is graded for quality by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

What is Beef Grading?

Beef grading is a voluntary evaluation program administered by the USDA. Highly trained experts examine carcasses and analyze attributes like marbling, maturity, color, and firmness to assign an official quality grade.

There are eight total USDA quality grades for beef, with the top three being Prime, Choice, and Select. The grade gives an indication of palatability, or eating satisfaction, that consumers can expect from a given cut.

Key Grading Factors

USDA graders assess the following characteristics when assigning a beef quality grade:

  • Marbling – The amount and distribution of intramuscular fat. Key indicator of flavor and juiciness.

  • Maturity – The physiological age of the animal. Younger beef has finer texture.

  • Firmness – An indicator of tenderness determined by muscle resilience.

  • Color – Bright cherry red lean color indicates freshness.

  • Texture – Fine versus coarse grain of the muscle tissue.

Marbling is considered the primary determination of quality grade. Let’s look closer at what exactly marbling is.

Understanding Beef Marbling

Marbling refers to the thin white lines and flecks of fat within the lean muscle. This intramuscular fat results from deposits between muscle fibers as cattle mature.

Some breeds are genetically predisposed to higher marbling, like Japanese Wagyu cattle. Diet also impacts marbling development.

When cooked, the marbling melts and bastes the beef in its own juices. This gives it characteristic flavor and juiciness.

Marbling Grades

The amount of marbling present is graded based on percentage of intramuscular fat and distribution:

  • Abundant – Fat comprises 10-13% of total area with uniform dispersion
  • Moderate – Fat comprises 4-10% of total area in small flakes
  • Modest – Fat comprises 3-4% of total area in thin streaks
  • Small – Fat comprises 1-3% of total area in very fine lines
  • Slight – Traces of fat up to 1% of total area

More marbling means a higher quality grade. Next we’ll explain the specific USDA grade scales.

USDA Beef Quality Grading Scales

There are two main systems for denoting beef quality grades:

USDA Quality Grades

The top three consumer grades are:

  • Prime – Highest grade, heavily marbled. About 2% of graded beef.

  • Choice – Well-marbled. Accounting for the majority of graded beef at 70%.

  • Select – Modest marbling, leaner than Choice. Makes up about 18% of graded beef.

Lower grades of Standard, Commercial, Utility, Cutter, and Canner are used in processed and ground beef products.

Beef Marbling Score (BMS)

This 10-point scale objectively measures marbling:

  • BMS 8-12 – Prime
  • BMS 5-7 – Choice
  • BMS 2-4 – Select
  • BMS 1 or less – Standard

The BMS provides an international standard for marbling regardless of country of origin.

How are Beef Carcasses Graded?

Beef carcasses are graded at two points along the production chain:

Slaughter Floor Assessment

  • Trained USDA graders perform initial assessment within 48 hours post-mortem.
  • Key traits assessed are marbling and maturity to determine preliminary grade.
  • Carcasses are ribbed between the 12th and 13th ribs to expose the longissimus dorsi, where marbling is most indicative of the overall carcass.
  • Maturity is estimated via cartilage ossification and lean color.

Further Analysis

Additional analysis may involve:

  • Evaluating lean color and texture uniformity after chilled storage.
  • Using instrumental marbling analysis with vision grading cameras.
  • Performing slice shear force tests if tenderness is questioned.
  • Re-examination and re-grading anytime between grading and fabrication.

How Can Consumers Use USDA Beef Grades?

Understanding USDA grades can help consumers select quality beef at retail and restaurants. Keep these tips in mind:

  • For superior juiciness and flavor, choose Prime or high Choice grades. Ideal for steaks, roasts, and grilling.

  • For value purchases, mid Choice offers excellent quality at a lower price point. Use for versatile meals and stewing.

  • For leaner beef, Select is lower in fat yet still tender. Best for health-conscious diets or watching saturated fat.

  • For maximum tenderness, choose grades with more marbling and use moist cooking methods like braising.

  • For top grilling results, pick Prime or Choice beef with modest marbling to prevent flare-ups.

  • For stews and pot roasts, choose Choice or Select depending on preference for fat content. Allow long, slow cooking to tenderize.

  • For ground beef, a mixture of grades yields ideal fat content for burgers and meatloaf without being too fatty.

Understanding the USDA beef grading scales allows consumers to find high-quality beef tailored to their tastes, cooking methods, nutrition needs, and budget. Look for the USDA grade stamp for assurance you’re getting delicious beef!

Beef Grades Explained – Select vs Choice vs Prime Steaks


What are the 4 quality grades of beef?

Grading for quality means evaluation of traits related to tenderness, juiciness, and flavor. USDA-graded beef sold at the retail level is Prime, Choice, and Select. Lower grades (Standard, Commercial, Utility, Cutter, and Canner) are mainly ground or used in processed meat products.

What is the best rating for beef?

Prime. Prime grade beef is the highest quality you can get. It features beautiful red meat laced with thin striations of white fat. This meat is well suited for a multitude of cooking conditions.

How do you determine the grade of meat?

The grade is primarily determined by the degree of marbling — the small flecks of fat within the beef muscle. Marbling provides flavor, tenderness and juiciness to beef and improves overall palatability. Other grading factors include animal age, and color and texture of the muscle.

Is all beef USDA graded?

Most ground beef is not graded. Grades are assigned as a standard of quality only. It is voluntary for a company to hire a federal inspector to certify the quality of its product. Beef grades are United States of Department of Agriculture Prime, Choice, Select, Standard, Commercial, Utility, Cutter, and Canner.

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