Is Choice, Choice? And is Prime, Prime?

By Christopher R. Raines

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:

  • Abundant
  • Moderately Abundant
  • Slightly Abundant
  • Moderate
  • Modest
  • Small
  • Slight
  • Traces
  • Practically Devoid

Pictured above are marbling "minimums" for the associated quality grade within "A" maturity.

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:

The thoracic "buttons" are more ossified in the image of the more mature carcass (Right).

  • A
  • B
  • C
  • D
  • E

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.


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8 thoughts on “Is Choice, Choice? And is Prime, Prime?

  1. Excellent post. This subject interests me as a consumer (commercial & retail) because I’m often interested in buying the best quality. You’ve explained that according to the USDA choice is choice. But these sub-categories & factors like aging show me the importance that quality vendors and butchers have when it comes to providing the consumer with the “cream of the crop”. While butcher a and butcher b are both offering you choice, a may be cutting only from the top of the choice market and b from the bottom third, with different aging, resulting in potentially significant quality differences within the same grade.

    • Art — You’ve highlighted the importance of knowing your and your suppliers specifications. Because of that, there can indeed exist significant differences among beef categorized within the same quality grade. Chris

  2. Thanks for the post. To me it seems most of the choice that is hitting higher than modest scores are getting placed in programs such CAB or Sterling Silver. Unless a market is buying a program or certified product they will often end up with the bottom end of choice. The only way around that is for the purchaser to hand choose which in today’s marketplace is almost impossible.
    Also isn’t the USDA in a lot of the large plants using digital cameras and color recognition to help grade? This takes away alot of the guess work. I wish they would refine the grading and add more categories similar to the Japanese system which has twelve.
    Also the Australians use age to upgrade their meats, if over two weeks I think it gets bumped up a grade, sort of like Sterling Silver’s program. Again thanks for the post.

    • Hi Tom — Thanks for your note, and for pointing out that there are indeed many differences among the World’s beef grading systems — only adding to the confusion. What benefit of more categories (i.e. similar to the Japanese system) do you propose they would add? And yes!, there are more and more video image analysis systems in US beef packing plants, it is certainly not yet in all of them. As an added “benefit” beyond helping “validate” USDA quality grade (though one could argue that the camera and grader are validating one other), it also supplies plants with an opportunity to capture more quality and yield data on the cattle they process. Cheers. Chris

  3. Thanks for the interesting post on cuts, presentations, color, etc. We too know that most consumers are a bit uneducated when it comes to beef, and hence why we created http://www.knowyourbeef.info as a place to educate and connect on the topic. It would be most valuable to the community if you would join our community as you appear to be one of the foremost bloggers on the topic of meat. You would sit amongst meat scientists, regulators and meat lovers who love to engage beef and red meat.
    Please consider yourself invited. We could use a knowledgeable member like you!
    Keep up the Good Work!
    Stephenie Rodriguez
    @digitalgodess on Twitter
    @Knowyourbeef

  4. This is a very good description of the grading system, however the reader is still confused. As we move forward the technology to actually determine the intramuscular fat maybe possible, which will remove the doubt. Prime beef contains at least nearly 10% intramuscular fat. Right now choice ranges from over 5 to 9.9 percent imf. Consumers may have trouble now determining value because in the meat case choice covers the whole range unless it is CAB or some other branded product.

    Instrament grading maybe a great tool for producers and consumers alike. Now each grader sees things a bit different, and nothing can be done about the decision. It maybe possible to ask for a regrade the next shift, but the actual extra time may allow for the marbling to bloom anyway. Right now it is an inexact science with a great deal riding on the grader’s choice.

    • That’s right, other Doc C. Grading is subjective. Instrumental grading is indeed a way to standardize this and it will be interesting to be involved with this as it “takes off.” Beyond instrumental grading is the future of marbling itself, especially since it contributes minimally to some palatability attributes of beef. I found it interesting how you described grading as an inexact science — perhaps this is as inexact in scientific merit as is the emphasis on total IMF.

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