USDA Beef Grades: How the USDA Grades Your Steak

beef steaks on grill with yellow chili and tomato

Prime, choice, and select are the three top grades for USDA beef. Whether you want top sirloin, rib eye, or T-bone steak, the USDA grading system helps you find the best cuts.

So what do the grades mean and how are they determined? The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) grades beef based on marbling and age. These factors determine the tenderness of the beef. Here’s a closer look.


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cutting roasted beef sirloin with rosemary and pepper

All USDA Beef is Inspected for Wholesomeness

The USDA has two separate programs for evaluating the quality of beef. Before grading beef, it needs to be inspected by the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).

A mandatory inspection is covered using public funds to rate the wholesomeness of the meat. All meat and poultry sold in the US goes through this inspection process to ensure it is safe for consumers.

If the meat passes the inspection, the carcass or major cut gets stamped with a purple vegetable dye. After trimming and packaging, the round purple mark will not appear on retail cuts, such as the steaks at your local grocery store.

To help you know whether the cut is safe for consumption, packaged meat should contain a separate inspection mark on the label. On raw cuts of meat, the label is a circle with the abbreviated inscription “38 US INSP’D & P’S’D”.

an infographic illustrating USDA ratings for beef

The USDA Grading System is Voluntary

The beef grading system is an optional process completed after the meat passes the inspection for wholesomeness. It’s administered by the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service.

Beef producers and processors can request grading for their beef products. A trained USDA inspector arrives at the facility or slaughterhouse to evaluate the carcasses. The beef receives two grades:

  • Quality grade based on the tenderness, flavor, and juiciness of the beef
  • Yield grade based on the amount of usable lean meat on the carcass

You have most likely seen the USDA grade shields for quality on store-bought steaks. Almost every cut of steak sold in stores comes with a shield symbol for USDA Prime, Choice, or Select. However, there are five additional grades.

The USDA beef grades are based on the marbling and age of the carcass. Marbling is the white specks and lines of fat running through the red meat. If the carcass has abundant marbling, the meat should be tender and juicy.

The most tender meat also tends to come from young cattle. As they age, their meat becomes tougher, reducing the tenderness of the cuts.

close up of raw steak pieces garnished with salt and herbs

USDA Prime Beef

USDA Prime is the highest grade for beef and comes from young, well-fed cattle. It has more marbling compared to other grades and is often sold in hotels and restaurants.

Only about 2.9% of all graded beef receives the “Prime” grade. Due to the abundant marbling, prime steaks are perfect for dry-heat cooking such as grilling, roasting, or broiling.

When you buy prime beef, such as Prime Black Angus T-Bone Steak, expect to pay a little more. With the extra price, you get the most tender, juicy steak available.

USDA Choice Beef

Close to 50% of all graded beef receives the “Choice” grade. This meat has slightly less marbling compared to prime beef but remains a good alternative to the top choice.

Choosing a Premium Angus Beef Porterhouse Steak or Filet Mignon with a “Choice” grade can save money without significantly sacrificing flavor or tenderness.

USDA Select Beef

USDA Select Beef is an economical choice with leaner meat and less fat compared to the top two grades. With less fat, Select beef dries out quicker, making it less desirable for dry cooking.

USDA Standard and Commercial Grades

Standard and commercial grades are often sold as ungraded cuts of beef. These grades are typically reserved for “store brand” beef.

USDA Utility, Cutter, and Canner Grades

The last three grades are rarely sold at retail stores or used in restaurants. Most of this meat is reserved for use in processed meat products including ground beef, hot dogs, and pet food.

USDA Yield Grades

You will not find the yield grade on individual cuts of beef. USDA inspectors grade the yield of the carcass before processing based on the amount of usable meat. The carcass receives a score of 1 to 5.

If you are shopping for a side of beef or carcass for your freezer, pay attention to the yield grade. A carcass with a yield grade of “1” has the greatest ratio of lean meat to fat while grade 5 yields the least usable meat.

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What Does All This Mean for Your Meal?

Using the information provided, you can ensure that you only buy the highest-quality USDA beef. When shopping for steaks or ordering a steak at the restaurant, look for the USDA grading shield.

If you see USDA Prime, Choice, or Select shields, you know that you are getting the best product.

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