Making the Grade | A Quick Guide to USDA Grading of Meats

Know the cuts that will give you the most flavor, tenderness, and juiciness

You’ve seen the labels in the market aisles. You’ve read the descriptions in menus. But what does “USDA Prime” or “USDA Choice” really mean? Do these terms make a difference to your taste buds?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has an Agricultural Marketing Service responsible for grading meats and poultry quality. This is an optional, paid-for service.

Beef

A whole beef carcass and not the individual cuts you see in packages in the market receives a grade. Criteria for meat include tenderness, juiciness, and flavor.

  • USDA Prime Grade—The highest grade, shows abundant marbling, and that leads to the most flavorful meats.
  • USDA Choice Grade—Also high quality but with less marbling than Prime. Roasts and steaks from the loin and rib produce tender, juicy, and flavorful meat. Cuts that are less tender, such as chuck, round, and rump, may need to be braised or cooked with liquid to produce the necessary tenderness.
  • USDA Select Grade—A leaner cut than Prime and Choice. With less marbling, Select meats may not be as flavorful and juicy. Loin, rib, and sirloin can be broiled, roasted, or grilled. Other cuts need to be marinated or braised to produce flavor and tenderness.
  • Standard and commercial grades—You’ll most often see this in stores, including the store brand meats.

Veal, lamb, and pork

Veal also receives grading. Like beef, the prime and choice cuts will be the most tender and flavorful. Lamb quality depends on the age of the animal. You’ll only want to purchase and eat prime and choice cuts for the best in flavor, tenderness, and juiciness. Lamb breast, shank, riblets, and neck are best prepared with a braising liquid to make them tender. The USDA does not grade the quality of pork.

Poultry

Criteria for poultry includes shape and fleshy meat free of defects, such as feathers, bruises, and discolorations, no broken bones, and no skin tears.

  • USDA Grade A—The highest level of quality and the grading you’ll most likely see at the market.
  • USDA Grades B and C—These grades of poultry are typically further processed into other products.

The grade marking does not appear on every poultry product, however. You’ll find it on whole or sectioned birds, roasts, tenderloins, and boneless and skinned products. Grading is not performed on poultry necks, wing tips, or ground meat.

Armed with this knowledge, you’ll be able to determine the quality of the foods on catering menus, restaurant menus, and markets.