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 !

  • 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.