What Every Meat Eater Needs to Know About Grades of Beef

What Every Meat Eater Needs to Know About Grades of Beef

 Dating back to when we were young, we were always encouraged to seek out getting the best grades possible in school.

Based on that directive, we did our homework and studied hard – hoping in the end it would be enough to have the best grade possible.

Getting an A in a class was always a source of pride. Getting a B wasn’t the end of the world, and getting a C meant you were passing.

The ranchers who raise feeder cattle also try to set themselves up for getting good grades – that being the grade the beef is given after slaughter.

So, how exactly do sides of beef get graded?


Beef grading is a voluntary process. Meat packing companies pay the USDA to assess and grade their beef. The USDA has provided this service since 1927.

Beef doesn’t have to be graded in order to be sold. This happens when a meat packer suspects that if they submit their beef to the USDA, it won’t earn a prime rating. If a meatpacker submits meat for grading, they are then required to label it according to the grade the USDA assigns it.

However, there’s a trick that meat packers use. If they never submit the meat for grading, then they don’t have to identify it by grade. It can be sold as “ungraded”. This saves them from having to label their meat with a lesser grade moniker such as standard or commercial.

According to ModernFarmer.com, some unethical retailers will advertise their beef as “Prime Value” hoping that this meaningless generic label will be assumed to be the same as USDA Prime. In fact, it is fairly common for meat packers to sell ungraded meat.

In total, there are eight quality grades of beef:

  • Prime
  • Choice
  • Select
  • Standard
  • Commercial
  • Utility
  • Cutter
  • Canner

Those shopping for their steaks and roasts at the grocery store are probably at least casually familiar with the quality grades of Prime, Choice, and Select.  Here’s how the USDA defines those three primary consumer-preferred quality grades:

  • Prime Beef is defined as coming from young, well-fed cattle. This grade of beef features abundant marbling of fat interspersed in the lean meat. This high level of marbling gives prime beef a rich and savory flavor. This is the grade of meat usually served in fine restaurants. Less than 2% of beef is graded prime.
  • Choice Beef has a lot of the same characteristics as prime beef. However, there is less marbling with choice beef. While choice beef is flavorful and rich in its own right, it is noticeably less than with prime beef. Choice roasts and steaks cut from the loin and rib are usually tender, juicy, and flavorful. This is the most common grade of beef that retail consumers will encounter. The USDA grades about 50% of beef with this label.
  • Select Beef is much leaner than prime or choice grade beef. Lacking the same abundant marbling as the top two grades of beef, select often lacks the same level of juiciness and flavor. It can still be delicious, but not to the same degree as prime or choice. It is also typically less tender. Select grade beef is ideal for grilling on a barbeque.

Less quality grades of meat such as standard or commercial find their way into shopping carts as store-brand meat. Utility, cutter, and canner cuts are used in making processed foods like soups, stews, and frozen dinner entrees.


The two primary attributes used to determine the grade of a side of beef are the age of the cow at the time of slaughter and the degree of marbling in the meat.

The age of the cow is derived by the inspection of the appearance of the vertebrae. The color and appearance of cartilage and bones help determine the cow’s age.

It is the marbling, however, that is the most important factor. The degree of marbling for the overall cow is gauged based on inspection of the ribeye.

Not only is the amount of fat considered, also the color of the fat can be a factor. White fat is preferable and is more commonly found in pasture-raised beef. Yellow fat is often indicative of a grain-fed feeder cow.

Marbling in prime beef reflects 8 to 13% fat. Choice beef typically has 4 to 10% fat. Select beef found at the store contains 2 to 4% fat. Interestingly, grass-fed beef typically has less marbling and therefore suffers in the grading process.

USDA grading only applied to meat in the US. By contrast, the highest quality beef in Japan has up to 40% fat. The factors the Japanese Meat Grading Association considers include marbling, brightness of the meat’s color, color of the fat, and overall meat tenderness.

In addition to the grade of beef such as prime or choice, the USDA also assigns a yield grade. Reflected by a rating system of 1 to 5, yield grade reflects the amount of consumable meat the carcass will translate to. A yield grade of 5 will produce the least amount of usable beef, whereas a grade of 1 will produce the most yield.

For determining the yield grade for a carcass, the USDA looks at:

  • Backfat Thickness (BF)
  • Ribeye Area (REA)
  • Kidney, Pelvic and Heart Fat (KPH)
  •  Hot Carcass Weight (HCW)


BULK was founded with a mission of becoming one of the premier beef jerky companies in America. We have never faltered from that mission.

Living up to that standard means that BULK always uses the best cuts of meat possible for making premium quality beef jerky. We even offer exotic and elegant Wagyu Beef Jerky. Wagyu is considered the best meat in the world.

But using the best cuts of meat isn’t limited to Wagyu jerky. BULK uses the best brisket and round-cut meats for the ultimate jerky experience.

California Brisket Jerky, for instance, is available in 13 flavor varieties including Korean BBQ, Carolina Reaper, and Honey Pepper – there’s a taste to match every individual’s preference. Nevada Brisket Jerky clocks in with 16 scrumptious flavor options including Real Western, Teriyaki, Whiskey, and Everything Bagel.

If you’re looking for the best steaks and roasts, you now know what each USDA grade translates to in terms of quality. And when it comes to beef jerky, you know that BULK is the go-to source for the country’s best beef jerky and other healthy snacks. Visit  www.BulkBeefJerky.com.
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