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What different grades of meat mean, and why meat grades don’t matter for grass-fed beef

If you’ve dined at a local steakhouse recently, you may have seen USDA Prime Beef advertised on your menu. What does this mean? Is prime beef better or healthier than other beef?

Prime is a designation given by the USDA and is a label that producers can choose to pursue, to distinguish their meat from lower-quality products. However, in the case of USDA meat grades, “quality” refers to the amount of flavor, the juiciness, and the tenderness of the meat. It has absolutely nothing to do with the level of nutrients within the cut, nor does it refer to how the animal was raised or what that animal ate during its lifetime (as organic, non-GMO, or grass-fed food labels or designations do).

It’s also important to note that any cut of meat can receive any grade, no matter how sought-after or expensive that particular cut happens to be. For example, a ribeye can be graded as prime or standard, a lesser-quality grade.

Finally, the quality grade has nothing to do with health or sanitation. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) ensure all meat sold within the United States — either locally or nationwide — is inspected for safety, diseases, and other necessary measures. Once again, the quality grade is entirely optional; producers actually pay the USDA to grade their meat so they can price and sell the cut accordingly.

What are the different grades of beef?

There are two different ways to “grade” a cut of beef. The first, and better-known method is the quality grade. There are eight different USDA quality grades, evaluating the steak or roast for tenderness, flavor, and juiciness.

The second method doesn’t grade the actual cut — it grades the entire carcass. Yield grade measures how much lean meat can be used compared to the amount of marbling (fat). Yield grades are given a number between one and five, with one being considered “the best,” with the highest portion of lean meat; and five the lowest quality, with the lowest portion of lean beef available.

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