What Do USDA Beef Grades – Prime, Choice, Select – Actually Mean?

USDA Beef Grades

When shopping for meat, have you ever taken pause to consider the difference between Choice and Select beef? Or did you simply assume these were marketing terms with no meanings?

Well, it turns out they actually do mean something.  The USDA defines 8 quality levels for beef. They are stamped on the carcass, but by the time you buy your cuts at the butcher counter, you’ll only know by examining the shield shaped sticker tacked onto the package. The quality grades are awarded for 3 parameters:

  • tenderness
  • juiciness
  • flavor

Here is how the USDA ranks the beef you buy:

  1. Prime grade is almost never found in supermarkets. This beef is produced from young, well-fed beef cattle. It has abundant marbling and is generally sold in restaurants and hotels. Prime roasts and steaks are excellent for dry-heat cooking (broiling, roasting, or grilling).
  2. Choice grade is still of high quality, but has less marbling than Prime. Choice roasts and steaks from the loin and rib. They are very tender, juicy, and flavorful. They also do well with dry-heat cooking. Many of the less tender cuts, such as those from the rump, round, and blade chuck, can also be cooked with dry heat if not overcooked. Such cuts will be most tender if “braised” — roasted, or simmered with a small amount of liquid in a tightly covered pan.
  3. Select grade is very uniform in quality and normally leaner than the higher grades. It is fairly tender, but, because it has less marbling, it may lack some of the juiciness and flavor of the higher grades. Only the tender cuts (loin, rib, sirloin) should be cooked with dry heat. Other cuts should be marinated before cooking or braised to obtain maximum tenderness and flavor.
  4. Standard grade is frequently sold as ungraded or as “store brand” meat.
  5. Commercial grade is much the same as Standard grade.
  6. Utility grade is seldom, if ever, sold at retail. It is used to make ground beef and processed products.
  7. Cutter grade – same as above.
  8. Canner grade – same as above.

Want to take a guess what quality grade the beef is in your fast food burger or deli meat gets?

What to do at the supermarket:

We used to never remember what the top 3 grades where. Try memorizing the acronym PiCkS (Prime, Choice, Select) when buying beef. Good luck.

  • Brian Klein

    Or you could skip the store, and find a farmer who raises beef responsibly. I believe any of these labels means that they were corn finished? Which leads me to ask: Why you didn’t discuss grass-fed with this post. I can imagine the reason might be that it would be too long of an article once you get into all the beef labeling, but given your stance on food quality, it seems to be right up your alley.

    • SafetyDave

      The type of feed is not used in grading. The very best beef is always corn fed for the fat the corn produces in the animal. Grass fed – or free range — beef is usually somewhat lacking in flavor and not as tender as corn fed. Another point I want to make is Angus. There is Angus, Black Angus, and Certified Black Angus. Only the Certified is the real deal. Just an fyi, I am a retired professional Chef so I know what I am talking about.

      • Lee Birnbaum

        How does the “Angus” line relate to prime, choice and select?

        I saw an “Angus” sticker on a steak at the grocery today that said Angus is “more selective than prime, choice or select”.
        Does that mean its better?

        Also, a butcher infirmed me that there are other factors that affect the grades. Fir example, cows sone sometimes get sick and are treated with antibiotics. He said that happening means the steak from that cow is automatically downgraded a level.

        Is this true?
        What other useful non-ovious criteria is there ?

        Thx !

        • JDog

          Angus does statistically have “good” marbling although its just a marketing tool. Other species have “good” marbling as well. To be honest the wagyu species has far superior marbling to the angus species but the price will rise. The USDA grade though does NOT care about the species. The factors that are considered is the AMOUNT OF VISIBLE MARBLING PER AREA, THE MATURITY OF THE ANIMAL (some animals mature at different rates, so not their age but their maturity) All species are graded on the same system whether its angus, hereford, limosine, belted, whatver, so what you are looking for is the USDA GRADE, PRIME, CHOICE, SELECT, and so on. If its an angus steak but not graded choice or better, so what. What makes a steak great is the fat. Literally. Thats what the grading scale is all about. How much and how well is the fat distributed along with how old the critter was is all thats considered when predicting measure of quality or “how good it is”
          DONT BUY BASED ON SPECIES, BUY BASED ON GRADE. Buy choice no matter the species and it will always taste the same. Angus is hype. It may have a greater percentage of them that are graded high, because of how selective the breeding process is, but it still comes down to what the steak is graded no matter the breed. The USDA GRADE. Thats the government regulated non partial measure of quality and inspection.

    • JM

      Like the stores are sourced by farmers already? You farmers kill me. Always hating on the industry that supports you. Yeah sell to your neighbors at a nice markup vs selling ur yearlings or calves at the auction for what they really are worth. All ur beef goes to feed lots where there scientifically fattened for flavor yield and taste, corn fed goodness, i mean they literally have it down to a science. The beef in the stores are your cows! You cant hate on them! Do they feed them grass? Nope. Why? not enough protein. Science. Talk to farmers many of em will level with ya, the store bought stuff is good, feed lot stuff is tasty. Grass fed? HA! Tastes like poo poo. The amount of time it takes to fatten a beef on grass is uneconomical and at the end its still less flavorful tender, lacks taste and marbling as a whole compared to corn and grain finished beef. Sell “Grass-Fed” to your neighbor? Well yeah I would too, its a lot cheaper, I dont have to buy grain or corn (expensive) already pay for my land that’ll do, and on top I can charge you through the nose because of ignorant uneducated populas. Then they want to tell you they are just poor farmers or ranchers. THERE ALL MILLIONAIRES! Seriously. And on top of all that they have the gall to scream and wine about less government and how they earned everyting they got and everybody just needs to work hard like them. Well ur welcome for your crop insurance subsidies that we pay in taxes so you dont go under if you have a bad year, sure wish they had that in other types of business. Or ur welcome for free range or subsidizing ur cattle feeding operation. but hey lets get rid of these taxes and helpful programs because government is bad! lol

  • likeyoudontalreadyknow

    Commercial grade is NOT “much the same as Standard grade.” There is a significant difference: Standard and above are used for animals that are less than 42 months of age (i.e. young beef). Commercial and below are grades used for older cattle.

    • SafetyDave

      Often dairy cows.

  • Priscilla Hoke

    I too was wondering why a grass fed steak costs less than USDA Prime steaks. My husband spent big money on USDA Prime steaks for a family gathering, but I get an $8 grass fed steak? That does not seem right! I’ve had this steak before and its like butter, no need for a knife and so full of flavor for $8.

  • ken

    My wife has diabetes and her doctor tells her not to eat any fat. We have found a breed called American Blue that has no fat and claims to be more tender because of the finer and shorter muscle fibers, as well as having less colesterol than chicken . How can your antiquated grading system grade the health benefits of a breed like this. go to americanbluecattle.org and click on why American blue.