Grades of Meat

Quality Grades - Beef

Quality grades are reflective of the eating quality of beef. Beef carcasses are cut between the 12th and 13th rib, making the ribeye easy to view. United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Graders evaluate the distribution on marbling in the ribeye. The age or maturity of the animal is also factored into the quality grade. As a consumer you also monitor the quality of steaks you purchase, look at the two ribeyes below. Which package are you more likely to choose?


The ribeye on the left is the one most of you probably leaned towards. It has a greater amount of marbling in the ribeye. Marbling is the white pieces of fat that are seen inside the lean. Additionally, it has a brighter, more cherry-red colored ribeye. The ribeye on the right does have less fat along the ribeye. However, it has less marbling than the other ribeye. In addition in has a duller color to the meat.

The USDA grading system breaks down the quality grades of beef into Prime, Choice, Select, Standard, Commercial, Utility, Cutter and Canner. The majority of the steaks sold in the retail cooler at the local supermarket are going to fall into Prime, Choice or Select; examples of these are shown below.

Prime Picture

Prime is the highest quality of beef available. They have the most marbling and are sure to provide a wonderfully juicy and extremely tasty eating experience. The high level of marbling makes them great for grilling and other dry cooking methods.

Choice Pictures

Choice is still high quality beef that has less marbling than Prime. Consumers are going to receive a delicious and juicy eating experience. Tender cuts are still great for grilling and other dry cooking methods, while less tender cuts are more suitable for a liquid added type of cooking.


Select is a uniform, leaner quality of beef. It still is tender and can provide pleasurable eating experiences, having less marbling Select beef is going to tend to be less juicy and tender than Prime or Select. Most often select cuts are either marinated or braised to achieve the most eating satisfaction.

Maturity or age is harder for the everyday consumer to see in the supermarket. This is taken into consideration when the USDA graders are grading the carcasses. Graders take the color of the ribeye in combination with the skeletal maturity to come up with this component of the quality grade. Any cattle that are graded Prime, Choice or Select are going to be young cattle who have not reached full maturity.

Quality grading is a voluntary service that is provided by the USDA and paid for by the processors and producers. The USDA has stamps that they use to identify what quality grade the carcass is.


Pork Quality

The quality of pork depends on its color, texture, and marbling which can be determined by visual evaluation or scientific tests such as ultimate pH.  Fresh pork is more tender and juicy when it is reddish-pink, firm and non-exudative.  Marbling can also improve flavor and moisture just like it does in beef.  The chart below helps to demonstrate the variations in pork quality. The USDA does not grade pork in the same way it does beef.  Pork carcasses are not ribbed, and grades of pork are determined by back fat thickness and carcass muscling. 




Lamb Grades

Lamb grades are based on age, conformation (carcass muscling), and other lean quality factors such as color. There are five quality grades: Prime, Choice, Good, Utility, and Cull.  More than 90 percent of lamb in the US will grade USDA Prime or Choice.



Video Podcasts and Webinars

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    The webinar examined the science relating to grass-fed and grain-fed beef in terms of sustainable... read more »

  • 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans Update


    Kris Sollid, Registered Dietitian with the International Food Information Council and Sarah Romo... read more »

  • Meat in the Diet


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