What are the USDA Grades of Beef? A Guide to Quality Grading

When shopping for beef at the grocery store or ordering a steak at a restaurant, you may notice labels indicating “USDA Prime,” “USDA Choice,” “USDA Select,” and so on. These beef grade designations are part of a quality grading system overseen by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Understanding the differences between the various USDA beef grades can help you select quality cuts of meat. This guide covers how beef is graded, what the grade names signify, and how to identify and choose beef grades at retail.

Overview of USDA Beef Grading

The USDA Beef Grading Program dates back to the early 20th century. Today, federal meat graders evaluate beef carcasses at processing plants and assign quality and yield grades. These evaluations follow strict USDA grade standards for tenderness, juiciness, flavor, and leanness.

Only meat from young, healthy cattle can qualify for the highest quality designations. Lower graded beef comes from older animals or those with less internal fat marbling.

There are eight total USDA quality grades for beef, but only the top three grades (Prime, Choice, Select) are typically sold at the retail level. The bottom grades go into processed items or ground beef.

Here is an overview of the USDA quality grades for beef from highest to lowest:

  • Prime – Highest grade, heavily marbled, very tender and juicy
  • Choice – High quality, slightly less marbling than Prime
  • Select – Uniform, fairly tender, leaner than higher grades
  • Standard – Less tender, minimal marbling
  • Commercial – Least tender, lacks marbling
  • Utility – Tough, devoid of marbling, seldom sold retail
  • Cutter – Very tough, mostly used for ground beef
  • Canner – Extremely tough, nearly inedible

Now let’s explore the top three retail grades of USDA beef more closely.

USDA Prime Beef

USDA Prime is the highest quality beef grade. Only about 2-3% of all graded beef achieves Prime distinction. For beef to qualify as Prime, it must have abundant marbling throughout the meat. The fat is finely dispersed to provide flavor, tenderness, and juiciness.

Prime beef comes from young cattle that are well-fed. Carcasses must be high-yielding with a high proportion of meat to bone. The cattle are usually around 28 months old at slaughter.

Due to its high fat content, Prime beef is excellent for dry heat cooking methods like grilling, broiling, roasting, and sautéing. It’s the ideal choice for steaks and roasts. Restaurants and upscale hotels serve USDA Prime cuts. Due to limited supply and high demand, Prime beef commands a premium price at retail.

USDA Choice Beef

The second tier quality grade, USDA Choice, makes up the large majority of graded beef sold at retail. Choice beef has less marbling than Prime, but still contains sufficient fat for good flavor, tenderness, and juiciness.

Choice roasts and steaks from the loin and rib are very tender and well-suited for dry heat cooking. Other cuts may need moist cooking methods. Choice beef comes from younger cattle under 30 months of age.

Most steaks sold at grocery stores carry the USDA Choice grade. Choice offers excellent quality and value for shoppers who want great tasting beef without paying the Prime premium.

USDA Select Beef

The lowest commonly sold retail grade is USDA Select. Select beef is very uniform in quality with less marbling than Prime or Choice. It is fairly tender but can lack some of the juiciness and flavor of higher grades since it contains less internal fat.

Only the most tender cuts of Select beef should be cooked using dry heat. Select round or chuck roasts will benefit from braising or stewing to maximize tenderness. Select beef comes from young cattle, generally under 30 months old like Choice grade.

Select beef is a leaner option but still delivers good taste and texture when cooked properly. It provides an affordable beef option for shoppers.

Identifying Grades at Retail

When shopping for beef, look for the USDA grade shield on packaging or check for grade names on labels. Higher graded beef is typically sold in steak form while lower grades get ground or processed. Here are some tips:

  • Prime steaks may be found at high-end butcher shops or upscale grocery stores.

  • Most grocery store beef steaks and roasts are labeled USDA Choice.

  • Leaner cuts like round are often labeled USDA Select.

  • Ground beef may be marked with its composite grade like “Ground Beef 85% Lean”

  • Ungraded beef is usually Select quality sold under a store’s own brand name.

  • Ask your butcher if you don’t see grade information on beef packages.

Knowing the differences between USDA grading can help you pick the right beef for your budget and needs. Prime and Choice deliver standout quality and flavor for special occasions. Select beef provides an affordable option for everyday cooking.

Beef Grades Explained – Select vs Choice vs Prime Steaks


Which is better USDA prime or choice?

Prime roasts and steaks are excellent for dry-heat cooking such as broiling, roasting or grilling. Choice beef is high quality, but has less marbling than Prime. Choice roasts and steaks from the loin and rib will be very tender, juicy, and flavorful and are suited for dry-heat cooking.

What are the 8 USDA beef grades?

According to USDA, quality grades are contingent on two main criteria– the degree of marbling or intramuscular fat in the beef, and the maturity or estimated age of the animal at slaughter. In total, there are 8 quality grades: Prime, Choice, Select, Standard, Commercial, Utility, Cutter, and Canner.

What are the USDA meat ranks?

In order of descending quality they are Prime, Choice, Select, Standard, Commercial, Utility, Cutter and Canner. Beef graded USDA Select is generally the lowest grade you’ll ever see at the supermarket.

What are the grades of meat from highest to lowest in the US?

The eight grades of beef are prime, choice, select, standard, commercial, utility, cutter, and canner.

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