As seen above, there’s tons of good information readily available about the general rules (Standards) of U.S. Beef Grading. This post is intended to go deeper into the why and how of the Beef Grading Standard’s development and practical application. Hopefully this “bigger picture” post will be helpful to some interested people.
In current day beef marketing, “needs” are increasingly being created to support various label claims. Touted differences in production practices are often cited as reason to support claimed desirable attributes of niche beef products. I’m of the opinion that this current reality was made possible by, and testifies to, the long-term success of U.S. beef carcass grading as a universally trusted marketing tool. Hopefully, niche market beef product marketing will never tarnish the USDA Beef Grading record. Further, reasonably easy to scientifically measure live animal and/or carcass attributes have been increasingly formed into written specifications that AMS Graders are trained to certify for Branded beef products.
Bulls are not eligible for Quality grading and Bullocks (A-maturity/young bulls) are only eligible for Quality grading when carcasses are class identified as such. These rules exists because of the comparatively inferior retail sales eating quality of intact male cattle; after they go above the age of young calf. Both bulls and bullocks are permitted to be Yield graded. Another, and often hard to prove, class rule is that an A or B maturity cow cannot be graded Prime, if there is sufficient skeletal evidence that she had calved. I’m unaware of the reasoning behind the no Prime cow rule.
As calves grow older, connective tissue collagen protein increasingly forms cross-link bonds; which are expected to make older animal beef cuts harder to chew up. Tracking the chronological age of millions of cattle; that likely changed hands a time or two, is impractical so physiological age estimates are used to aid in predicting beef tenderness. “Reading” the cartilaginous tips of the split backbone (chine bone) is the primarily method used to estimate beef carcass maturity levels. However, kill-floor inspectors also make beef animal age estimates that are based on reading teeth; while an animal’s head is hung with the carcass it belonged to. Inspection age estimates are used to evaluate possible BSE threats. In general, as beef animals get older the concentration of myoglobin color pigmentation increases in their muscles. So, non dark-cutter characteristic, darker lean is used as a secondary indicator of carcass age. Beef carcasses are ribbed (cut across the rib-eye between the 12th & 13th rib) at least 10 minutes prior to being offered for grading; so the exposed the meat surface has sufficient time to “bloom up” (change color due to exposure to oxygen). The three primary palatability characteristics (eating enjoyment indicators) are flavor, tenderness, and juiciness; so an estimate of tenderness is rightfully a major factor of beef Quality grading. Followingly, if the overall maturity of a carcass is determined to be C-maturity (on a scale of young A to very old E) it’s not eligible for the young “retail market” grades of Standard, Select, Choice or Prime. In cow-kill plants it’s not uncommon to see some carcasses that display bright cherry-red lean and high degrees of marbling, but most of those carcasses would grade Commercial if they were offered for official grading.
Juiciness pretty much depends upon the degree of marbling (intramuscular fat flecking) that cross-cut beef muscles display. That fact is very widely known and is often about all a lot of people know about beef grading. Genetics play a major role the propensity of a beef animal to marble well as it approaches full-grown maturity; so the British origin beef breeds have always been the most widely produced. Not only do British breeds mature at a comparatively young/tender age, their medium frame score carcasses also yield portion-control size steak cuts. Further, early maturing can reasonably be expected to maximize facility usage efficiency and feed (grass, hay, silage, grain) efficiency per animal unit produced. However, beef producers in hot climates often revert to using Brahman influence breeds because lower marbled beef production is better than cost prohibitive losses from raising straight British breeds in such regions. Brahman are a more heat and disease resistant cattle type that displays drop ears, a neck hump and grunts in lieu of mooing. Another downside to Brahman influence carcasses is that they will normally yield somewhat tougher meat; when harvested during the market cattle age range.
The mild flavor of grain-finished beef is what most Americans have become accustomed to. Grain-finished cattle are normally on high energy rations from 90 to 120 days. The closer to full grown a calf is, the quicker it’s expected to put on adequate fat to acceptably marble. True grass-finishing produces somewhat older market animals due to lower energy nutrition levels (slower growth), softer yellowish fat due to beta carotene and gamier flavors. The USDA Beef Grading Standards once had a discount provision for yellow fat, but fat color is no longer mentioned in the Beef Grading Standards. As one might expect, beef flavors become more intense with increased age. Additives have long be pumped into HRI market (Hotel Restaurant & Institutional) wholesale beef cuts to “enhance” flavor, tenderness and juiciness, but in the fresh retail and mid to high-end restaurant arenas minimally seasoned beef is predominately required in order to retain repeat customers. As it still is with USDA Lamb grading, conformation (an estimate of relative muscle thickness) was once considered a Beef Quality grade factor. Since muscling degrees (conformation) relate closely to Yield Grades Lamb carcasses must be both Quality & Yield graded; whenever offered for official grading.
When encountered, carcass defects can discount or even negate Quality grading in affected carcasses. Dark-cutting beef is the most common defect occurrence and affects product acceptance from fresh meat buyers. Interestingly, there is nothing otherwise wrong about dark-cutters; plus it’s higher than normal pH actually tends to increase cooked meat moisture retention. Dark-cutting steaks can offer a good financial deal to restaurants because being serve cooked, fresh meat product eye/buy appeal is no longer an issue. Further, dark-cutter ground meat can be unnoticeably blended into large loads. Fresh retail chuck and round cuts probably take the biggest financial hit from dark-cutters, and dark-cutting high-heat cookery restaurant steaks still sell to restaurants at somewhat of a discount. Steatosis AKA callous or Ecchymosis AKA blood-splash, observed in ribbed beef carcasses during grading, can both disqualify a carcass side from grading if observed above a minimal concentration. Steatosis is primarily thought to be healed blunt force trauma carcass areas; where fat filled in voids that were left from dead muscle cells. However, chemical burn from excessive usage of pour-on de-wormers has also been cited as a cause of callous. Ecchymosis is caused by capillary rupture and is due to a slow stick job. A knocked animal’s blood pressure skyrockets after mechanical stunning and it’s therefore a best practice to quickly relieved that pressure by the timely draining of blood. As long as critical grading call regions are still intact after Inspection trimming etc., such trimming will not preclude it from either Quality and/or Yield grading. During the grading process some carcass grades are inevitably encountered that do not promote the applicant’s (meat plant’s) marketing efforts. Such carcasses are not required to be graded and are commonly referred to as “no-rolls.” The no-roll term harkens back to the time when the subcutaneous fat on most graded beef carcasses was roller branded in designated patterns with edible dye grade marks. Wholesale cartons of sub-primal beef cuts may carry label terms such as, Select or Higher or Choice or Higher. This practice is useful to packers for moving “end meats” (chuck & round); where higher degrees of marbling are not normally in demand. Beef carcasses tend to marble more heavily toward the front (anterior end) of a carcass so it’s not uncommon for high Quality grade chucks to carry degrees of marbling that are objectionable to many of todays “all fat is bad” brainwashed retail fresh meat buyers. Further, if packers are sometimes long on higher grades of rib or loin cuts they might conceivably want to downgrade Choice or Prime middle meats by way of putting them in lower grade marked wholesale cartons. Whenever higher grade cuts are placed in lower grade labeled cartons they still carry the actual grade shield on their vacuum bag primary container.
Yield grading can be either performed separate from Quality grading or both grades can be done in combination, example: Choice 2. Yield grade designations are 1 through 5 with the 1 designating carcasses that are expected to yield the highest percentage of closely trimmed boneless retail cuts, grind, stew meat & cube steaks. Yield grades were more important at one time in the past; back when more people bought freezer sides and a multitude of retail stores still broke sides or quarters on site. The main use of Yield grades today to determine exactly how much big harvest plants will pay per pound on live cattle weight. Quality grades can also be used in live cattle price settlement. Additionally, packers often pay discounted prices for cattle or carcasses that are over their maximum preferred weights. Maximum weight discounts have to do with restaurant portion control and the ability of retail fresh beef buyers to be able to afford large diameter steaks; after the steaks have been cut to optimal high-heat cookery thicknesses.
Grading is voluntary and packers pay the USDA’s AMS for it on a fee for service basis. There was once a time period, before beef industry consolidation into big plants, when some trusted local slaughterhouses offered their own “House Grades.” Today’s Beef Grading Standards (rules) have evolved to equitably protect the interests of beef animal producers, packers, retail establishments and consumers. Of those interests, satisfying the consumer with an enjoyable beef product at an affordable price is the most important consideration because doing so retains repeat beef customers.
In small plants beef graders walk between overhead rails to perform their work. In medium to large size plants they are stationed on well lit stands while chain driven rail trolleys push split carcasses past them.
Live feeder cattle USDA Standards are intended to predict finished market cattle carcass grades. The three factors evaluated in that system are frame score at a given age, muscling degree (thickness) and thriftiness (healthy and not double muscled). Large framed cattle are expected to reach Choice grade finish levels at an older age and at heavier weights than either medium or small framed cattle. Thick muscling is a predictive indicator of the lower numbered/better yielding Yield grades.
All the many years of Beef Grading Standards research and improvement revisions become worthless whenever Official USDA grade names are misused. The AMS’s Public Law 272 is designed to help protect the integrity of the Meat Grading Standards. Just google AMS Public Law 272 if you care to review it. The majority of about 180 AMS red-meat graders are stationed in the “Beef Patch” (Nebraska, Western Kansas, Texas Pan-Handle & Eastern Colorado). APHIS Meat Inspectors are not AMS Meat Graders. However, Inspectors have been trained to grade carcasses at some small plants that have request grading service; when there are no AMS graders stationed cost effectively close. So, in some regions of the U.S. it’s largely up to beef industry stakeholders to keep an eye out for and report on any suspected PL-272 violations.
USDA third-party Beef grading is a proven marketing tool that can be used to purchase meat that is very close to what one is expecting to enjoy eating.