Understanding the Quality of your Beef. What does PRIME, CHOICE, and SELECT really mean?

March 31, 2017

Understanding the Quality of your Beef. What does PRIME, CHOICE, and SELECT really mean?


There’s something about grilling fresh meat over a charcoal grill that’s so enjoyable. The delightful smell of grilled meat, and the sizzling sound of fat dripping on the glowing charcoal. I’ve always loved to enjoy what I thought was high-quality meat, USDA Prime.

USDA Prime looks so special when you go to Costco or grocery stores. It has that official looking USDA seal and the PRIME notation on a gold foil sticker. They usually package the meat with a light blue Styrofoam plate or another color instead of the regular black one. The marbling on a Prime Rib Eye is a sight to behold.

Even though I love Prime cuts with the perfect marbling, in the back of my mind I always knew that it probably wasn’t healthy for me. I’ve heard about grass-fed beef and how it should be the only type of beef you consume. But often times with food, if it’s healthy for you, it’s usually not as tasty.

So, in order to convince myself that I need to eat beef in moderation and seek better sources of protein, I did some research into the requirements for different USDA grades. What I found was pretty shocking to say the least.

USDA Grades (Prime, Choice, Select) are a Marketing Tool

You may be wondering what the qualifications are for prime, choice, and select beef. Turns out, Prime or Choice beef doesn’t mean the cows were better cared for, or had a better diet. It doesn’t even matter about the nutritional content of the meat. Nor does it specify the safety or cleanliness of the meat or the conditions it was processed in.

By law, ALL meat sold in the United States is required to undergo safety and sanitation inspections. This is conducted by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), under a management program called the Hazard Analaysis Critical Control Points (HACCP). It’s a guideline that every producer, distributor, and retailer of meat have to strictly follow

There’s an agency within the USDA called the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS). AMS programs include basic standards for meat “quality” and are voluntary programs that are fee-based. Meaning, if you want to raise the perceived value of your meat and have the money to pay for it, AMS will certify your meat for you which will raise the perception of your meat’s “quality” at the grocery store. USDA Certification “increases the product’s market value, thereby creating value for producers and others in the marketing chain”, explains a public affairs specialist with the AMS. Simply put, it’s a marketing tool for large-scale producers that can afford to pay for these certifications. Giving the impression to consumers that their meat is somehow of higher quality. But the reality is that true quality is sacrificed for the sake of profits.

In 1926, the USDA began grading meat quality due to a demand for accurate quality reports by consumers. The grades were broken down into two main categories, quality and yield.

“Quality” was based on the following factors:
Marbling – Intramuscular distribution of fat, literally the amount of fat in between muscle fibers
Tenderness – How soft the meat is, which is directly related to the age of the cow at slaughter. Younger cows have more tender meat.
Color – Also directly related to age of cow. Younger cows have meat that’s brighter in color and fat that is milky white. Older cows have meat that’s a darker color and the fat has a gray tinge.

These three factors determine how the piece of beef will taste once it’s cooked. And it’s the same standards used today. Although the technique to determine the grades are different.

Back in the day, the grading process was overseen by an AMS agent who examined the cross-section between the 12th and 13th ribs of the cow. This is the location of the rib-eye, the most marbled cut of beef. Based on this single area sample, the entire cow was assigned a grade of prime, choice, select, or lower grades. This is equivalent to getting a pinch of your belly fat to determine your overall body fat. It’s not a highly accurate measurement by any means. Today, Video Image Analysis of each cow carcass determines what grade they receive.

To put it simply, the higher the grade (Prime) the greater the amount of marbling. Marbling is a description of the intramuscular fat deposits, which is actually something quite difficult to achieve. Excess fat first deposits beneath the cow’s skin (subcutaneous), then their organs (visceral), then between their muscles (intermuscular), and then lastly in between muscle fibers which we call marbling (intramuscular). In order to achieve this, cows need to eat a lot, with not much exercise. Which is not the best thing for a cow’s health. Here’s what the USDA grades actually mean.

Prime beef comes from younger cows that have been overfed grain to increase intramuscular fatty deposits (marbling). An equivalent in humans is a morbidly obese 2nd grader. We would be seriously concerned about the kid’s long-term health if we saw them in this state. These cows are slaughtered when they are still young (18-24 months old) so we don’t have to see what happens to them down the line. Prime cows have minimal exercise which makes the beef tender. Their extra fat makes their steaks extra juicy and delicious.

Choice beef has less fat than Prime beef but has similar tenderness. They may not be as tasty as the Prime beef cuts, but their texture will be comparable nonetheless. They come from cows just as young or slightly older than prime beef cows.

Select beef is leaner than the previous two grades. It doesn’t mean that the beef is of lower quality, but it probably does mean it won’t taste as good. You can find the biggest difference in taste between factory-farmed beef and small scale grass-fed beef in the select grade. Grass-fed cows still yield very tender and flavorful cuts, whereas factory-farmed cows yield less flavorful and tougher meat.

Typically, the meat that has USDA grades such as prime, choice, or select come from cows that were raised in feedlots.

Feedlots - Factory Farming of Beef

Meat is relatively affordable for the average American household, all thanks to feedlots. Feedlots are fenced off patches of land where cows are cramped into and fattened up for slaughter. Up to 100,000 cows at a time are crowded into 1 square mile at some feedlots like the Harris Ranch Beef Company in central California. You can imagine the living conditions are extremely unsanitary, making antibiotic use very necessary to prevent infections from breaking out and wiping out tons of cows.

Most of these large-scale meat producers raise cows on grain, which is not what cows were meant to eat (they were meant to eat grass). Even worse is that some of these producers feed cows corn, which is very cheap due to GMOs and overproduction but very harmful to the health of cows. Grain-rich diets have severe negative impact on the wellness of cows.

Cows have evolved to eat grass, and therefore have multiple stomachs. Grass contains cellulose, which are indigestible plant fibers. In order to properly digest grass, cows use the multiple stomachs to facilitate stages of digestion, often regurgitating grass from their first stomach to further chew up and breakdown the fibers. Cows also depend heavily on the bacteria in their gut to help break down cellulose via fermentation. Fermentation releases gas, and as long as whatever the cow is eating digests slowly, gas build-up is usually not an issue. Normally, this long digestive process is typical for a cow and weight-gain is usually slow and steady.

Feeding cows grains (especially corn) throws all of this out of whack. Grain diets cause rapid weight-gain in cows because grain fibers are easily digestible. Another issue is that the grain increases the fermentation rate, leading to bloating in the cows. Sometimes, so much gas is produced in the stomachs of the cow that it begins to push on their lungs, making it hard for them to breathe. Some cows even die from asphyxiation (loss of air to brain), a slow and painful death.

That’s not all, cows are given antibiotics and hormones to speed up the fattening of the cows. Faster growth of cows means bigger profits for the producers. We’ll talk about the consequences of using antibiotics in cows in later articles (hint: they create antibiotic resistant bacteria).

Organic Beef – Not AS GOOD as you think.

The National Organic Program started in the year 2000. The requirements to get certified 100% organic is that the cow is fed 100% organic and vegetarian feed (pesticide and chemical fertilizer free). Additional requirements include no antibiotics or hormones used, and year round access to the outdoors. This does not mean all organic meat is considered high quality meat. There is still room to cut corners including having outdoor access be a small back area, and grain can be fed to the cow three months before slaughter to fatten them up. This is called Grass-Fed and Grain-Finished. Still a much better alternative to beef from feed-lot cows.

Does it really matter? Grass vs. Grain Fed Beef Nutritional Content

If you’re eating beef a few times a week and eat healthy otherwise, it’s not a big deal to eat grain-fed beef in terms of health. BUT there is a huge difference between the nutritional content of Grass-Fed vs. Grain-Fed beef.

Grass-fed beef has higher conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) content. CLA is believed to offer anti-cancer properties, anti-inflammatory properties, and other great health benefits. Cows that grow on grass also have beef that contains a 1:1 ratio of Omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids.

Cows on a grain-fed diet have a skewed fatty acid content of 6:1. That means grain-fed beef contains 6 TIMES more Omega-6 and Omega-3. Why is that bad? Omega-6 and Omega-3 actually complement each other inside your body.

However, too much omega-6 is linked to inflammation in your body, compromised immune system, and heart disease. Omega-6 is also found in vegetable oils, such as soybean oil, corn oil, peanut oil, grapeseed oil, etc.

Omega-6 fats are everywhere and they’re not particularly bad. They’re an essential fatty acid, meaning it’s a fat that your body needs to synthesize certain molecules that it cannot create itself. However, you need to have an equal ratio of Omega-3 fats. The problem is that americans eat 14-25 times more omega-6 fats than omega-3 fats.

Essentially, eating lots of grain-fed beef is going to cause an even greater imbalance of Omega-6 fats to Omega-3 fats. The more grain-fed beef you eat, the more important it is that you supplement with some high quality Omega-3 fats in order to counter-balance the consumption of too much Omega-6.

Grass-Fed – The Best Beef for You

Grass-Fed beef is the best choice to know you’re eating an animal that was well cared for, had a good diet, and lots of fresh air and sunshine. The standards for grass-fed beef was set by the USDA in 2007. The rule was that “Grass and forage shall be the feed source consumed for the lifetime of the ruminant animal, with the exception of milk prior to weaning.”

Grass-Fed beef is by far the healthiest, however it’s not available in a typical grocery store. The meat is leaner and gamier, and the flavor and texture vary drastically depending on the cow breed and its diet. They have no grain in their diet because they spend all their time on the fresh pasture munching on grass. This leads to their lower fat content, so their producers rarely go for USDA grading since they would receive lower scores anyway. Ranchers work extremely hard to make sure cattle are rotated across different fields and are adequately fed during cold season. It’s much more costly to raise grass-fed cows, which is why the price of this healthy meat reflects that.

However, the nutritional content of the beef and the hearty taste of the meat is worth it if you can afford it. Check out your local butchers in the area or look online for vendors of Grass-Fed beef. The best is if you build a relationship with local ranchers to get the best deals and tap into the wealth of knowledge about beef.

The most important point in all this is that we need to educate ourselves to make smarter, healthier choices with our food. There’s a lot of money in the food industry and it’s easy to get caught up in marketing tactics that make us think that something is healthier for you when it isn’t. Knowledge is power, let’s learn and apply our knowledge so that we can help our family and friends live healthier, happier lives.

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