View from the Levee: What’s Your Beef?

The American beef-grading system confuses most folks -- including some who are behind the meat counter in today’s mega-markets. Alan Guebert is here to set things straight.

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In 37 years of wedded bliss to the now mostly vegetarian, always quite lovely Catherine, we have reached exactly one clear agreement on food: When it comes to the purchase of red meat, this family’s only carnivore is the big dog.

That means I buy the summer sausage that I only savor, the babyback ribs that I only smoke and the rib-eyes that I only lust for and linger over.

The understanding has less to do with either my bark or bite than with a decades-long misunderstanding of what meat grades mean. “Grade A” beef gave way long ago to “prime,” “choice” and “select” beef. But the change left most consumers behind. “Choice?” I overheard one would-be beef eater say while surveying a meat counter. “There’s not choice here; all I see is beef.”

She hadn’t a clue; most people don’t. Catherine didn’t. Our understanding came about after I complained (for, maybe, the 20th time) about her buying cheap, tough beef cuts.

“Wait a minute,” she rose in defense, “doesn’t ‘select’ mean it’s been ‘selected’ as the best among the ‘prime’ and the ‘choice’ cuts’”?

No, in fact, it means the opposite. Select is the bottom of beef barrel while choice is the broad middle and prime the very tip-top.

Moreover, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the government agency in charge of red meat inspection and grading, tracks the percentage of slaughtered cattle in each category each week.

For example, for the week ending August 2, USDA calculated that, nationwide, only 3.04 % of all steers and heifers slaughtered that week graded “Prime” while 66.61% graded “Choice” and 29.75% graded “Select.”

Those percentages alone offer a big key to your – my – beef buying and delight.

With but 3% of the entire weekly slaughter, your chance of finding a prime cut of beef in the supermarket is like finding a $100 bill in its parking lot. Not gonna’ happen.

Prime beef is hard to grow, hard to find and, in the very competitive high-end American market, as pricey as lobster. Most is sold through white table cloth restaurants, specialty meat shops and exports.

Choice beef dominates most meat retail outlets because the grade dominates the live cattle market. Choice does not mean less flavor in your rib-eye or Kansas City strip. It does, however, mean a better value, often priced 30 to 40 percent below the buttery prime. Choice cut roasts, like sirloin and round, are just as flavorful and just as good a value.

Select grades of beef are often the “sale” beef featured in major supermarkets and wholesale clubs. (I see “Select” and think “Run.” Catherine sees “Select” and thinks “Grab and run.”)

Some select cuts, like a chuck roast headed for the crock pot, are extremely flavorful and quite cheap. The key to most select beef is slow-and-low, low heat and slow cooking, because the very elements that make it “select” – less intra-muscle fat and, likely, from an older animal – require greater care and more time to prepare.

Every sold-over-the-counter package of beef should carry a grade label.

A year or so ago my local Kroger advertised a huge “steak sale.” Intrigued, I motored to the store to inspect the offerings. Indeed, it was a huge sale but not one package rib-eyes carried one grading label. As such, I couldn’t tell if the cheap steaks were prime (fat chance), choice (this cheap?) or select (far more likely).

 Just then a “butcher”—he was wearing a white smock and an unattractive hairnet—appeared behind the counter. “Can I help?” he asked.

Yes, are these rib-eyes choice or select? I replied.

“I’ll go ask,” he said as he turned toward the rubbery curtain behind him and disappeared.

Worry One: He didn’t know?

He soon returned to cheerily announce that the steaks were “Angus.”

Worry Two: Angus is a breed of cattle like poodle is a breed of dog; it tells you nothing about the actual steak or the actual dog.

I’m sorry, I said, I’m looking for its grade  – choice or select?

“Angus.”

Angus is a breed, not a grade.

“Right,” he said.

I went home, empty-handed, to the lovely Catherine and her eggplant lasagna. It wasn’t my choice and it wasn’t Angus.

Agriculture journalist Alan Guebert lives in central Illinois.

 

Topics: Ag and TradeFood
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