A reader asked this fantastic question: is Choice beef (presuming the same cut, of course) from Bifteck Supérieure the same as Choice beef from Heartland Beef Systems? (of course I’m making up names…) The quick answer, in regard to the USDA grade associated with it, is: Yes.
Here’s why… Quality grades are assigned by USDA graders who have been trained according to the same beef grading principles and those individuals are evaluated (“correlated”) to make sure Grader John and Grader Jane are operating on the same wavelength. USDA beef quality grades are affected by 2 factors: marbling and maturity of the carcass. (There are other considerations such as “dark cutting” and you can read more about that here.)
Marbling “scores” in order from greatest to least:
- Moderately Abundant
- Slightly Abundant
- Practically Devoid
Within Prime and Choice, there are 3 “sub-grades”: High, Average, and Low. A simplified explanation for this – Each 1/3 has an associated marbling score, i.e. Average Prime = Moderately Abundant, Average Choice = Modest, etc. “Sub-grades” enable certain “branded programs” to establish limits (often minimums) to be qualified for their respective program. An example of this is Certified Angus Beef, which requires “upper 2/3’s choice,” or, “Modest marbling or greater.”
Prime and Choice beef may come from “A” or “B” maturity cattle, whereas Select beef may only come from “A” maturity cattle.
Maturity “scores” from least mature to most mature:
Most “fed” cattle fall into the “A” and “B” maturity score categories. One indicator of carcass maturity (since we don’t have actual age records on cattle… but that’s for another day…) is ossification, or the conversion of cartilage to bone. In the image above, note the white cartilage at the time of the bone (young), compared with the “bony” tips of of the bones of the other image (mature, for which cartilage has turned, mostly, into bone). Once again, some “branded programs” may have certain maturity maximums (or minimums). For example, Certified Angus Beef requires a carcass to present “A” maturity characteristics.
Another factor associated with determining carcass maturity is lean color, with brighter, pinker lean being indicative of younger cattle, and darker, “muddier” lean being indicative of older cattle.
Given the requirements of grades and the very high correlations among USDA graders, Choice is Choice.
What USDA quality grade does not account for, however, are various postmortem treatments, such as aging. With those, there may very well exist differences among Choice beef from Bifteck Supérieure and Choice beef from Heartland Beef Systems. Those treatments, dry aging or wet aging, perhaps even mechanical tenderization, are attributes which may be accounted for in written specifications. Requiring USDA Choice may be just another specification.