Decoding Your Meat: A Guide to USDA Beef Labels

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[Photograph: Vicky Wasik

There's no question that beef is loaded with meaning, whether it's a celebratory steakhouse ribeye or a conscious move toward grass-fed meat. But, like virtually anything we eat, there's also a good chance that some form of marketing influenced the route from its source to our plates—and not just in the "Beef. It's what's for dinner" sort of way. I'm talking about the labels on your supermarket beef, which are loaded with meaning that may not be totally evident, or comprehensible, at first glance.

In this country, it's the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS)—an agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)—that has a decisive say in how meat is labeled and marketed for sale. The AMS's programs include basic standards for meat quality (prime, choice, etc.), along with regulations for the certification of a whole slew of terms you've probably spotted on your packaged steak and burger meat—think antibiotics, hormones, and what exactly constitutes grass feeding.

But here's the thing: unlike the mandatory HACCP (Hazard analysis and critical control points) safety and sanitation inspections that all meat undergoes, AMS programs are entirely voluntary. In other words, they're paid for by the producer or processor, not the government. And applying for and obtaining this sort of certification can come with a hefty price tag.

Which has to make you wonder why producers choose participate. Sam Jones-Ellard, a public affairs specialist with the AMS, explains that USDA certification "ultimately increases the product's market value, thereby creating value for producers and others in the marketing chain." In theory, a label ultimately helps producers, distributors, and vendors make more money—assuming they can afford to invest in the first place.

It's a contentious practice, and there are some who believe that these standards favor industry behemoths. Patrick Martins, founder of Heritage Foods USA, views them largely as a tool for large-scale producers that can afford to buy in. He describes the USDA as a "pay to play" system that "makes it very difficult for producers that rely on nuance of taste to compete with factory farms... [the USDA] is not really about quality at all, which is what small artisans need." He also explains that USDA labels generally don't manage to communicate the kind of important qualitative information that makes Heritage Foods USA products, for instance, unique.

So when it comes to using the retail level, different purveyors may put a varying amount of currency into USDA certification, and the presence of a label doesn't necessarily set one steak above the rest. We'll be taking a look at two different labeling categories: grades, which relate to the measurable, physical qualities of beef post-slaughter; and certification and verification labels, which say something about the treatment your meat received while it was still a living, breathing animal.

Grading Demystified

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[Photograph: USDA, Flickr]

The very first USDA grades date all the way back to 1926, when demand grew for more accurate reports on the livestock market. Over time, these grades have come to be the industry standard for assessing the value of livestock slaughtered for meat in this country. Now, when it comes to beef, these grades can be broken down into two categories: quality and yield (we'll be focusing on quality here). Quality grades are based on criteria like marbling (the intramuscular distribution of fat), tenderness, age, and color—these are the things that'll ultimately tell you how a piece of beef will cook and taste. Yield grades, on the other hand, involve the ratio of lean red muscle to outer fat—this part helps purchasers know just how much saleable meat there is on a whole animal, and it has little to no relevance to the average shopper.

The grading process is overseen by a grader from the AMS, who examines a cross-section between the 12th and 13th ribs (this is the area at the back end of the ribeye, which is the mostly heavily marbled cut of beef). It's kind of the bovine equivalent of using a pinch test to estimate your overall body fat: only a small sample is used to make a judgement on the entire animal.

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[Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]

By examining this one cut, the entire beef carcass is then assigned a grade of either prime, choice, select, or one of several low-end grades. At this stage, they're also given sub-level grades based on marbling, such as "high prime" and "low prime." You won't find those grades on a retail-scale, though, which means that there can be a wide variation in quality within the same grade.

It's worth noting that these criteria were formulated primarily with grain-finished beef in mind. A 100% grass-fed cut won't have that same rich marbling you'll find on a conventional steak. Which makes sense, considering the animal's unique diet and more active lifestyle. It's also why many producers will opt out of having their meat graded. The USDA recently countered with an announcement that they may be revising their grading standards for the first time since 1997. These changes would likely include new regulations that deal with the quality of specifically grass fed beef. Jones-Ellard says that the "AMS is expecting significant input from stakeholders because of changes in the industry, and because the standard has not been updated in a number of years... the grass-fed sector of the beef industry, like all other sectors, will have the opportunity to submit comments and proposals about revisions and updates to the standards that are used to determine if cuts of beef are marked prime, choice, or select."

Here are the different classes of USDA graded beef, and their characteristics:

Prime

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[Photograph: USDA, Flickr]

This is your highest of high-end beef, and accounted for just under four percent of all graded beef in the United States in 2013, according to the USDA. Prime beef has a marbling score of "slightly abundant" to "abundant," meaning that there's a whole lot of veiny, delicious fat worming its way throughout the muscle. Mark Lobel, of Lobel's butcher shop in New York, says that "marbling [is] what makes the whole experience of eating steak delicious," adding that in Prime beef, Lobel's looks for "streaks that aren't heavy or clumpy. If you take a sharp pencil and you make lines going through, it should be that fine." Other indicators of high quality include a pinkish-red flesh and milky white fat, which indicate younger, healthier beef—a steer's meat tends to get darker and coarser the older it is at slaughter, and the fat starts to take on a grayish tinge.

Available mostly in steakhouses, fancy restaurants, and artisan butcher shops, Prime beef is likely something you'll want to spring for when you're shopping for fast-cooking steak cuts that really benefit from the web of buttery richness created by marbling. Still, Lobel insists that even in inherently lean cuts like tenderloin, you're getting "a rounded flavor profile and tremendous taste" with a Prime-graded meat.

The takeaway here? What really makes prime beef prime (and the reason why purveyors charge high prices for it) is the superior distribution of its fat. Fat builds flavor within the meat and gives beef the flavor that makes it, well, beefy. When it's marbled and distributed throughout the meat the way it is with prime, you'll get that flavor in every bite.

Choice

Making up the majority of USDA graded beef (around 66%), Choice beef contains "small" to "moderate" marbling. While there are plenty of perfectly good steaks within this category, especially with naturally tender cuts like tenderloin, it does encompass a wide range of quality. On one end of the spectrum, a Choice steak may have an equivalent degree of marbling to a Prime steak, but because of the older age of the animal at slaughter, it missed the higher grade. On the other, a Choice steak could be taken from a tender, younger animal, but have only a modest amount of fat and marbling.

The Choice category is where you've really got to be vigilant in order to get the most bang for your buck. For steak cuts, look for choice beef that still has a good degree of fine marbling throughout—this is what's called "High Choice." The USDA does oversee a number of certified programs for cattle breeds such as Black Angus and Akaushi that generally require the beef to have a marbling score in the upper levels of Choice or higher, so it may be worth seeking out beef labeled as such to get a better quality cut within this grade.

Select

Select beef, which encompasses a little less than 30% of all graded beef, is taken only from young cattle (less than 30 months old), but which have just a "slight" degree of marbling. So while it could be tender, it's pretty lacking in the flavor department. Most of its fat will be located in thicker chunks around the edges, rather than dispersed throughout. If you're looking for the best steak-eating experience, you'll probably want to choose a higher grade than Select, though Select can be perfectly fine for the tougher cuts intended for stews and braises where you're breaking down the structure of the muscle anyway. Many supermarkets will use Select-quality beef as their in-house brand.

Standard, Commercial, and the Lowest of the Low End

The five lowest grades of beef—Standard, Commercial, Utility, and Cutter, and Canner—are at the bottom of the beef hierarchy. These account for less than one percent of all graded beef, but that low figure can be attributed to the fact that most beef that isn't likely to make the top three categories won't be put up for grading.

Standard grade beef comes from very lean cattle less than 42 months of old, while the bottom three grades consist of meat from animals that are advanced in age. You might see Standard or Commercial beef cuts sold in grocery stores, although there usually isn't any effort to advertise a grade on the packaging. Utility, Cutter, and Canner are mostly reserved for ground beef and processed products.

USDA Verified Programs

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[Photograph: Shutterstock.com]

Want to know if your beef is organic? Grass-fed? In addition to grades, the AMS also regulates and verifies other label claims for beef through initiatives such as the National Organic Program and Livestock Process Verified Program. According to Jones-Ellard, "claims can cover raising, feeding, handling, processing, labeling practices, or other practices and processes that differentiate a producer's product." To acquire these kinds of certifications, producers have to go through a whole auditing process, carried out by the AMS or a third party organization it works with, and submit relevant documentation and veterinary records, in addition to paying fees.

And, speaking of third-party auditing, there are a number of independent organizations out there that work with producers to certify these sorts of practices as well. You might see their logos on meat packaging too, but their individual standards may differ substantially from those of the government. For any certifying agency, including the USDA, it's important to understand what their rules do and don't cover, and to be on the lookout for semantic loopholes—one agency's definition of a term may differ from another's.

Here are a few of the certified labels that the USDA regulates:

Organic

The regulation of organic beef is the same as that of all organic livestock—standards that were established under the National Organic Program in 2000. Basically, it states that an organically raised animal must be fed 100% organic (pesticide- and chemical fertilizer-free) and vegetarian feed, have year-round access to the outdoors, space to move, and not be treated with antibiotics or hormones. In many ways, the organic label is pretty comprehensive, covering aspects of the animal's living conditions, as well as its general diet and wellness.

That said, there's still some wiggle room within these regulations. During the grazing season, for instance, it's mandatory that at least 30% of a steer or heifer's diet is pasture (fresh grass). But beyond that, there are no requirements for the amount of time it spends outside—outdoor access for the rest of the year could easily be limited to a small back area that it's never actually encouraged to visit. Organically raised cattle also may receive grain as part of their diet, and they're exempt from the grass-feeding minimum during the finishing period (the last fifth or so of their life, when they are fattened up prior to slaughter).

Grass-Fed

Grass-fed beef is often touted as the very best choice if you want to know that you're eating a happy animal. The standards for grass fed beef were set by the USDA in 2007, and establish that "grass and forage shall be the feed source consumed for the lifetime of the ruminant animal, with the exception of milk consumed prior to weaning." When it gets to your plate, this means beef that is leaner and generally gamier, though like all beef, flavor and texture can vary drastically depending on the specifics of breed and lifestyle. This makes sense, considering that the cattle have had no grain in their diet and likely spent more time on the move while at pasture. Because grass-fed beef is generally lower in fat, it's rarely submitted for grading, since current USDA standards pretty much assure that it will receive a weak score.

Deborah Krasner, author of Good Meat, says that "you have to learn to cook this meat, but it rewards with flavor and health benefits," referring to its leaner qualities and higher levels of healthful omega-3 fatty acids. She adds, "it is easy to add fat. It's not easy to get the benefits of grass-fed beef," meaning that ranchers have to work particularly hard to make sure that cattle are rotated across fields during the grazing season, and kept adequately fed during the colder months.

But there's still room for a fair amount of ambiguity here. These standards only specify that cattle must have "continuous access to pasture during the growing season." 'Access' doesn't mean exclusive diet, and doesn't mandate how much actual time the herd spends outdoors. So theoretically, it's entirely possible to raise beef mostly indoors on hay and still have it qualify as USDA grass-fed.

Just to be clear, all cattle do start out their lives at pasture. The difference is that conventionally raised cattle may be transitioned to a grain diet when they're as young as six months old. There's also beef that is "grass-fed and grain-finished," which means that it spends the majority of its life eating grasses, until the last three to five months, when it's time to fatten up cattle for slaughter. On packaging, be on the lookout for vague terminology about pasturing or a grass diet. Unless it has the "USDA Process Verified" shield, there's a chance that the animal was raised according to less exacting standards.

No Antibiotics

Antibiotic medicines have been used in livestock not just to treat disease, but also to keep the spread of harmful bacteria in check. As Martins, a strong advocate of antibiotic-free meat, puts it, "most animals aren't sick, especially if they're pasture raised. The reason they use antibiotics on factory farms is because those animals are sick." Another reason why producers might use antibiotics is because they've been found to help livestock grow more quickly, though exactly why remains poorly understood.

Here's the real problem, though: giving liberal doses of antibiotics to animals is thought to encourage the spread of treatment-resistant diseases in herds, and may even have similar implications for humans who eat their meat. In response, the Food and Drug Administration has taken steps to curb the use of antibiotics, and the USDA has standardized the phrase "no antibiotics added" on packaging. That label means the animal never received antibiotics, even in the event of illness.*

*This in itself is a contentious issue—it can happen that a steer in need of antibiotics to treat an infection will be denied treatment in order to maintain the "No Antibiotics Added" label.

A USDA-certified meat product without antibiotics will, like grass fed beef, have the "USDA Process Verified" shield on its packaging. But you might also see similar terms, which lack the same enforcement as the "no antibiotics administered" designation. For example, phrases like "antibiotic free" and "no antibiotic residues" are not covered by the USDA, and could be used by a producer who administered antibiotics at some point during the animal's life.

Naturally Raised

First off, it's important to understand that the word "natural" on meat packaging doesn't count for much. The USDA definition of "natural" is that a product contains "no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed," which, as far as beef goes, covers almost all fresh cuts sold.

"Naturally raised" meat, however, is a different story. This is a USDA verified claim, established in 2009, that covers meat from animals "raised entirely without growth promotants, antibiotics...and have never been fed animal by-products." Growth promotants include hormones and other substances typically used to increase milk production, while animal by-products refer to waste from slaughter or fecal matter that can make its way into a herd's diet or living conditions (yeah, gross, I know). You may also see this marked as the "Never Ever 3." These conditions are also covered by any USDA organic label. In other words, all organic beef is naturally raised, but not all naturally raised beef is organic.

What it all Means

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[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

USDA labeling and terminology could be described as a language that helps translate what happens on the farm into tangible information at the retail level. But it's not exactly an end-all—a label can only say so much about the quality or background of a piece of meat, and there are plenty of producers of high-quality beef out there who simply don't participate in the AMS programs. As Krasner says, "there is no substitute for talking with the producer. Failing that, buy from retailers who have done the investigative work for you."

It's important to remember that all the labels out there don't diminish the fact that you're still making a choice when buying beef. There is a complex range of factors to consider, from the cut to the quality to the various ethical or environmental considerations. It all ultimately boils down to a personal decision. Different butchers, farmers, and chefs are likely to give a range of opinions on what good beef is, and just as many perspectives on how helpful USDA certification is in aiding their own criteria. And while a steak's grade or certification may give you an idea of what to expect from it taste or texture-wise, you've still got to use your eyes and ask questions to get something that fits your taste and your budget.

Martins, who expressed his own skepticism toward USDA programs, sums up this disparity between the AMS regulations and what we value in our meat: "A USDA inspector might have a great palate, but for the most part, they don't have enough practice tasting, eating, looking at different breeds, or understanding gastronomy A to Z." In many ways, his words point to a disconnect between two ends: the quantifiable measures that are the basis for a grade or a certification, and the experiential qualities that matter to eaters.