Everything you need to know about USDA Prime Beef

What is USDA prime beef?

You’ve probably come across restaurants selling USDA prime beef and besides assuming it was from the United States, wondered what it means. USDA stands for United States Department of Agriculture which is Federal agency responsible for setting the grading criteria for beef raised and slaughtered in the United States.

An image of the USDA prime beef logo
The USDA prime beef logo

USDA prime beef is the USDA’s certification of a premium (and pricey) piece of beef. There are a number of other grades, but in restaurants and butcher you’re likely to come across the following three key grades:

  1. Prime Grade: This is the beef you’re mostly likely to come across in your restaurants. It’ from young cows, often 12-14 months where the beef has a significant degree of marbling.
  2. Choice grade: Similar to prime but has a moderate amount of marbling.
  3. Select grade: Select is leaner but still has a slight degree of marbling. 

What is ‘Marbling’ and why does it matter?

You’ll notice that the common element for grading beef is the degree to which it’s marbled (marbling or intra-muscular fat is the dispersion of fat through lean muscle – or the little white speckles you can see in raw steak). The USDA values marbling so highly because they believe it makes the steak ‘juicier’ and ‘tastier’.

An example of marbling (from certified Kobe beef)

There are some major ‘cultural differences’ between beef farmers in the US and other countries. Because marbling ultimately drives the grade of beef, most USDA beef is produced by farmers who feed their cows on corn and protein supplements that help the cows rapidly gain weight and as result produce steaks with more marbling.

There are a conflicting views on whether marbling has any real factor in the taste. Some people claim that the breed, diet (grass) and maturity (slightly older) are better indicators of quality and taste than the dispersion of fat through lean muscle. If you’re interested to discover steak that takes the opposite approach from the US, check out our article on Basque Beef & Txuleton Steak.

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