America loves red meat. We're the fourth-largest per capita consumer of beef in the world, just behind Uruguay, Argentina, and Paraguay; burgers are our nation's most popular dish; and there are far more high-end steakhouses than ever before. But, while we adore our beef, as consumers we tend to be much better at eating it than buying it. Many diners and shoppers do not understand what informs beef labeling practices, or how to make the best choices to fit their tastes and budgets.
US beef shoppers have probably never had more good options than they have today. The availability of truly natural beef, raised without antibiotics, steroids, growth hormones, or the cannibalistic consumption of animal by-products, is greater than ever in recent history. Those who prefer 100% grass-fed, grass-finished meat are also in luck, with many more products on the market. Walmart, the world's largest retailer, raised its house beef standard from "Select" to "Choice"—the second best of all eight USDA beef grades—which is nothing to sneeze at. (Besides the three well-known retail grades—Prime, Choice, and Select—the USDA identifies five more: "Standard," "Commercial," "Cutter," "Utility," and "Canner." Though you won't see any of those labels in grocery stores, you can read up on what they mean here.) Perhaps the biggest change of all is that our coveted "Prime" beef, once the sole province of expense-account steakhouses and specialty butchers, has trickled down to the shelves of some supermarkets, and even Costco. Everyday backyard grillers who previously had little or no access to it can now buy Prime steaks along with their economy packages of toilet paper.
But not all Prime is equally Prime, and the disparity is even starker for Choice, the national standard for beef lovers without deep pockets. In fact, due to quirks in the grading system, shoppers will often walk away with better meat if they opt for Choice over Prime at their local market, if they know what to look for.
The Problems With Prime
The USDA's Prime grade is complicated by two confusing issues, and both relate to marbling. For the past century, our entire beef-grading system has been based on the now-controversial notion that marbling, the dispersion of white fat in red muscle, is the single most important criterion for measuring beef quality, without regard to age, breed, feed, flavor, tenderness, or any other factors. When this system was adopted, our cattle industry was a lot more homogeneous—we ate mostly meat breeds (as opposed to dairy cattle) that were finished with corn or other grains, and within this reasonably consistent pool of beef, marbling was a fairly telling way to differentiate quality. But marbling is not everything. Grass-fed beef has far less marbling than grain-fed, yet many prefer its flavor. Certain breeds produce better-tasting meat without an accompanying increase in marbling. In many beef-obsessed countries, like Spain, older, more flavorful animals are considered superior. The Japanese beef-grading scale evaluates both the quality and the luster of the fat as well as marbling, while our scale considers all fat equal.
Because of the one-dimensional nature of our grading system, and the growing demand for and high price of Prime beef, producers are encouraged to sell any cattle that qualify. For years, scripture in the food industry was that Prime beef represented less than 2% of all graded beef in this country, a stat frequently touted to prove its exclusivity, and lots of sources today still quote 1.5 to 2%. Except that's not true anymore, as the amount of beef graded Prime has grown dramatically in recent years. The real number is now 3 to 3.5%—which doesn't sound like a lot, but it represents a roughly 100% increase in the past decade. The top grade has historically been scarce beyond fancy steakhouses and butchers; now, despite way more fancy steakhouses, Prime is increasingly found at supermarkets and big-box stores.
"The fact of the matter is that there is far more Prime than five or 10 years ago," says Marc Sarrazin, partner at legendary New York specialty butcher DeBragga and Spitler, which sells retail and supplies many higher-end restaurants, such as Gotham Bar and Grill. "Part of that is better genetics, ranchers doing a better job and raising animals with better marbling. We're seeing better grading across the board, more Prime, more Choice, less low-quality beef." But another part of it, as Matthew King, corporate executive chef for the Smith & Wollensky steakhouse chain, reminds us, is the limited nature of the USDA's grading system: "The grade is a representation of marbling, but there's a lot more that goes into how it tastes. Breed is important, and there's a lot of Prime beef on the market now that is Holstein, dairy cattle, with much different taste, but still scoring Prime."
While some of the growth in supply has indeed come from better breeding techniques, some has come from slaughtering less mature cattle and breeds previously not intended for eating. Younger animals, cows, and dairy breeds often have more fat than mature beef steers, but are less flavorful. Nonetheless, the USDA focuses on a visual examination of the ribeye between the 12th and 13th ribs, which inspectors compare to picture cards representing official USDA marbling scores. This inspection is largely what determines the grade, which brings us to the second point of confusion.
To be graded Prime, the marbling score must be at least "Slightly Abundant." The key words in that sentence are "at least." While consumers see only the three retail grades on package labels, these grades in turn comprise eight different marbling scores, three of which fall within the Prime category. Yet in most of the USDA's informational charts and consumer materials, the top two marbling scores—the very best in the eyes of the USDA—are omitted. Slightly Abundant is the minimum score for Prime, but it is also where most lists top out. This is why butchers and chefs are known to whisper about "high Prime," which refers to Prime meat that scores in the rare top two marbling rungs of "Moderately Abundant" and "Abundant."
At the same time, while the total supply of beef graded Prime has roughly doubled, allowing more retailers and restaurants to offer it, the vast majority still scores in the lowest marbling rung. This means that most of the available Prime out there is considered "entry-level." "I would say that 90% of the Prime in the country is Slightly Abundant, meaning it barely qualifies," says George Faison, Sarrazin's partner at DeBragga. He suggests that this is part of the same phenomenon that has increased the overall availability of Prime, through greater diversity in the cattle supplying domestic beef: "A lot more dairy cows are going into meat programs now, it's become very lucrative, because they grade Prime at a much higher rate than the traditional English beef breeds, such as Angus and Hereford. How the animal is raised is not reflected in the grade. You can buy Prime beef that comes from a dairy cow slaughtered at 12 months and given antibiotics and growth hormones and fed quickly, or you can buy meat from naturally raised beef-breed cattle that was fed for 120-plus days, never given drugs, and slaughtered at a more flavorful 24 months, and that's also Prime. In addition to dairy cows, you get animals that are young, fatty, and juicy that have been fed quickly and can score Prime, but without developing muscle flavor. It's fattier and not as flavorful. I think that's a lot of what you see at the supermarket."
Though there are plenty of exceptions and caveats, for consumers buying beef either in stores or from menus, quality is driven largely by one simple but often-overlooked economic rule: Those who can will pass higher costs on to their customers. This means that expensive steakhouses, four- and five-star restaurants, specialty butchers, mail-order retailers, and private-label beef programs (more on these later) pay a premium to get first crack at our nation's best beef, within every grade; what's left goes to mass-market retailers and more mainstream restaurants. Whether you choose Prime or Choice, if you buy it at the supermarket or order it at your corner pub, odds are good another purveyor has already passed it over.
"Major distributors have access to the best meat, and with the number of high-end steakhouses out there, I'd be shocked if the top level of Prime is ever reaching retail," says King. "But almost no Prime whatsoever used to reach retail, so it's still good for consumers."
Given the limitations of the USDA's system—the fact that it does not break out for consumers the degree of marbling within its grades, or differentiate between breeds, ages, diets, or techniques for raising beef—private industry has stepped in to fill the informational void, and make it much easier for consumers to identify and purchase higher-quality beef.
Gibsons, a venerable Chicago steakhouse, is the first and only restaurant in the country with its own private-label Prime beef. It was established using what the USDA calls a Schedule G Certified Beef Program, in which a company creates its own grading standards—which are usually more stringent than the USDA's own requirements for a particular grade—then pays the USDA to inspect and certify those standards. The message conveyed here: There's USDA Prime, and then there's Gibsons USDA Prime, which the steakhouse claims is better. (Gibsons also has a private-label program for Choice beef.)
"Not all Prime is created equal," says Gibsons Chef Dan Huebschmann. "The USDA doesn't regulate feed or regional specificity. Our meat is only sourced from selected Midwestern farms, where they are raised, fed, and processed to the specs in our certification. Our requirements are very specific about feed and where it comes from. Seeking out Prime is not enough; there's commodity Prime, facilities that are not using Angus and processing anything, including Holstein. The USDA's GLA Angus certification is 51% black, but our certification requires 90%."
"GLA" refers to Schedule GLA, the legal criteria for what producers can call Angus beef. Angus is a highly desirable beef cattle descended from Scottish Aberdeen Angus, which is more productive, better-marbled, and tastier than most other breeds. But very little pure Aberdeen Angus remains, so most Angus today comes from hybrids. Because pure Angus cattle tend to be black, the USDA uses color, not genetics, to qualify its labeling. To Angus fans like Huebschmann, the more black the better, hence Gibsons' more demanding specifications. Schedule G-125, the criteria that govern Gibsons Angus Beef (both Prime and Choice), includes other physical requirements for acceptable cattle, such as "no hump exceeding two inches in height," that are specifically aimed at isolating Angus genetics and avoiding dairy cattle and other breeds. Due to the predominance of hybrid Angus beef in the US, standards such as Gibsons' try to capture "purer" cattle, with higher levels of Angus genetics.
Gibsons' requirements roughly mirror those of Certified Angus Beef, or CAB, which created the very first private-label Certified Beef Program (and basically invented the category) four decades ago, with specific standards designed to keep out undesirable non-Angus breeds. CAB likewise adopted age requirements to ensure more flavorful, mature meat. Though CAB's program was originally built for Choice beef, it now sells a Prime version of its branded product as well, as do several other purveyors. In both grades, branded products are often a shopper's best source for the highest quality. As Faison says, "When the consumer sees 'Prime,' they can't know anything more, unless it's in a branded program like Certified Angus Beef Prime, where you get older and more flavorful animals. The differences can be dramatic."
The rise of private, branded beef programs has led Smith & Wollensky, one of the nation's largest premier steakhouse chains, to completely change the way it buys beef. It now sources meat for best-selling cuts from the 70,000-acre Double R Ranch in Loomis, Washington. "This will be our third year on a single-source beef program, and for us the biggest thing is consistency. Every processor has some great meat, but also some not-great meat. Now it is all from one geographic area, the same climate, same feed, same processing plant," says King.
With the standards they create, private branded beef programs, such as CAB, Gibsons, Sterling Silver, Niman Ranch, Creekstone Farms, Allen Brothers, Seminole Pride, and dozens of others, can deliver more consistent quality, just as Double R does for Smith & Wollensky, while simultaneously assuring consumers that the meat in question is not derived from youngsters or dairy cows. Some programs or brands, like Niman Ranch and CAB's "Natural" label, also incorporate drug-free and natural raising practices into their standards.
Nonetheless, while more consistent quality is a good thing, consumers still have no practical way to distinguish between the three marbling scores within Prime. So little "high Prime" exists that none of these brands have integrated higher marbling requirements into their standards for Prime beef. The Choice grade, however, is a very different story.
There is no real USDA program for high Prime, but there are many private, branded programs that offer the consumer "high Choice"—and this may just be the best buy in red meat.
The Choice grade spans a wider range of quality and encompasses three possible USDA marbling scores, though, as with Prime, you can't find those on labels. (The three scores, from best to worst, are "Moderate," "Modest," and "Small.") The upper echelon of Choice sits just a shade below Prime's "Slightly Abundant," while the lowest tier sits right above the Select grade. The range of quality within Choice beef is pronounced—the top 30% can have twice as much desirable marbling as the bottom 70%—but, again, without the assurances of a branded program, buyers of Choice often face the same problems that characterize the Prime beef supply. "That 30% is the best, and it all gets skimmed off in the industry, so when you buy Choice at the supermarket, you get the lowest end of the grade—unless it's branded," says Faison.
Just as with Prime, the private, branded programs for Choice seek to control the age and breed of the cattle they sell in order to achieve better consistency. Unlike with Prime, many of these also reject the lowest of the three marbling scores and sell only the top two, which comprise the best 30%. This effectively guarantees that the consumer is getting high Choice. "It costs a bit more than just USDA Choice, but a lot less than Prime, and guarantees a better eating experience. If a consumer sees something like CAB Choice at retail, they will get something better than run-of-the-mill—it's 100% absolutely better," says Sarrazin. "High Choice is the sweet spot in the market right now."
The original Schedule G private label, CAB Choice is now the best known and most widely available of these options, seen on better menus and in supermarkets. The CAB brand was created by a cooperative group of ranchers specifically to differentiate high Choice: "When this brand was founded, meat scientists saw a big difference in the consumer eating experience between Choice beef above and below the Modest marbling score. We have a lot of data that shows that consumers cannot differentiate low Choice, or what we call 'commodity Choice,' which is more than two-thirds of all the Choice out there, from Select, and that's really important," says Mark McCully, VP of production for the company. CAB's Prime version came about later, along with its Natural line, which guarantees no drugs or animal by-products and is available in both Choice and Prime.
"Years ago, we would go directly to packers and say, 'We need something better,' and they would hand-select the upper tiers of Choice, and we would call it 'top Choice,' but that wasn't a brand, and we got away from that," says Sarrazin. (Other industry terms for high Choice include "upper Choice" and "hand-selected Choice.") "CAB was a response to that about 40 years ago. Ranchers weren't getting the recognition they deserved for raising a better product, so they created their own standard and got the USDA to certify it. The CAB Choice standard is just the top two marbling scores in Choice," the best 30% of the grade.
Chef after chef agrees that for consumers, branded high Choice is one of the best options. "Prime is just 3% of the beef graded in America, while Choice is half, and that's why the upper Choice is so important to differentiate," says King. "It's Choice that wants to be Prime, thinks it's Prime, but didn't quite make the cut." Because the branded high-Choice programs combine near-Prime marbling scores with higher standards for breed and maturity, one can easily argue that this category is better than commodity Prime, period. And it's certainly a better value. "My favorite steak is a high-Choice rib," says Faison, a bold claim for someone whose shop sells steak approaching $150 per pound. "Because the rib steak has more fat to begin with, in high Choice you get nice balance, not too fatty. It's the most bang for the buck."
"Hand-selected stuff, like Sterling Silver or CAB, is differentiated, almost Prime. At home, the difference between Prime and high Choice is about 70% your cooking method—if you can perfect your char and cook it right, you're not going to notice much difference," says David Walzog, longtime executive chef at the Wynn Las Vegas's SW Steakhouse, one of the country's very best steakhouses, with a huge selection of Prime, high-Choice, Australian and Japanese wagyu, and genuine Kobe beef. Besides CAB, Creekstone Farm and Niman Ranch are accessible both at retail and on menus, while Sterling Silver, a high-Choice private label, can be found in better supermarkets.
What to Look For
High-Choice branded products are excellent alternatives to commodity Prime for the most popular, high-demand steaks—ribeyes, strips, T-bones, and filets. But you might still do well with Prime for less popular cuts that are unlikely to be snapped up for top dollar by steakhouses and high-end butchers. Walzog points out that a Prime grade means "the whole animal is Prime, not just the ribeye," and recommends seeking out Prime short ribs. King estimates that Smith & Wollensky and other upscale steakhouses use only about 30% of the steer for their menu offerings, while "the rest is sold elsewhere." He tells consumers to look for "things like Prime flat iron, flank, and all those Prime cuts we don't use. They are great values and great meat." And, if you're devoted to real Texas-style barbecue, you may be lucky enough to get some top-shelf brisket at your favorite joint: "The BBQ guys are getting much more Prime brisket now, thanks to us," says King.