Grading Meat: What’s Healthy and What Isn’t

Grading Meat: What’s Healthy and What Isn’t

A little while ago, we talked about the grading of vegetables. How confusing the system was, and what was constituted as healthy. Well, this time, we are looking into the rules and regulations for grading meat. If the policy is completely voluntary or at least a little lax for vegetables, then surely it would be the same for the meat industry, right? Not exactly.

Thanks to a failed attempt at getting America to embrace socialism by Upton Sinclair, regulations in the meat industry was a must from the 1920’s onward. People were concerned if the handling of meat was considered safe and healthy. So, the meat grading system, compared to the vegetable grading system is far more complex and is taken more seriously by the government. There are different grading levels for each type of meat. Most of which are not interchangeable with meat because each type of meat has its own properties based on what is healthy for that animal. So, we are going to look into the grading system for two of the three types of meat that are predictably harvested and bred in the United States. Beef, and Chicken.

Grading Beefbeef, prime

Beef, meat from a cow, has officially 8 grades. Each grade takes into consideration both the marbling and the age of the meat from when it was initially killed and harvested.

1.  U.S. Prime – Highest in quality and intramuscular fat, limited supply. Currently, about 2.9% of carcasses grade as Prime. This would be the creme de la creme where beef is concerned and has the most fat attached to it.

2.  U.S. Choice – High quality, widely available in the foodservice industry and retail markets. Choice carcasses are 53.7% of the fed cattle total. The difference between Choice and Prime is largely due to the fat content in the beef. Prime typically has a higher fat content (more and well distributed intramuscular “marbling”) than Choice.

3.  U.S. Select (formerly Good) – This is lowest grade commonly sold at supermarkets, acceptable quality, but is less juicy and tender due to leanness.  The cutoff for this grade of meat, as well as the other two grades above,  is when the cattle is 30 months old or younger.

4.  U.S. Standard – Lower quality, yet economical, it lacks marbling so you would need to add some fat for cooking.

5.  U.S. Commercial – Low quality, lacking tenderness, produced from older animals. If you are using this type of meat at all, then you would want to utilize a cooking method meant to tenderize the beef, like boiling. The age of this cattle is in between 30 to 40 months old.
The three grades below are the kind of beef that can’t cut it as a steak.  Instead, the meat from older cattle is utilized for things like ground beef, sausages, hotdogs, and canned meats. This cutoff in age is past 40 months.

6.  U.S. Utility

7.  U.S. Cutter

8. U.S. Canner


grading chicken, health standardsGrading Chicken

The quality of chicken, like beef, does have a grading system. However, there are only three grades. This is because the grading system does not rely on the age of the chicken, so much as it relies on the condition of the meat and bones. The meat and muscular definition of the animals vary according to species, so they rely on checking the fat content, the condition of the flesh, and the condition of the bone. All to make sure which is more healthy.

1.  Class A –  This type of class is at the top. This is with no deformities, bruises, broken bones, or discoloration. This bird better be in perfect condition to make this grade. There should be no exposed flesh or at least as little as possible. This is the type of chicken that is good for roasting.

2.  Class B –  This type of class allows for moderate deformities. It should still have flesh, at least enough so that the wings or the drums don’t look too thin. The amount of exposed flesh can be no more than one-third of the carcass.  This type of chicken is great for frying.

3. Class  C – This is the lowest grade for poultry. It is allowed more room for error with the occasional feathers still unplucked, little fat attached to the flesh, and mostly exposed skin. The meat is going to be tougher, so this grade of chicken is best for stuff like stew meat or used in the making of stock.

Which Grades are Healthy?

The way that we grade meat is far more meticulous than vegetables, and it is outright fascinating how meat is graded on their own merits. However, what do we know is the healthiest? The trick is, you don’t want the fattest cut, but you don’t want the leanest cut either. Fat is still good for adding flavor and tenderizing the meat, but too much of it can go to your waistline. Stick with midgrade unless you want to go lean for things like stews.