Choice, grass-fed, organic, natural—what do these terms all mean? The labels you see on beef in U.S. stores refer to grades as well as other characteristics such as the breed and how the animals were raised. You'll notice that, as with other foodstuffs, not all labels are created equal, and you'll need to interpret them to know what you're buying.
Prime, Choice, Select, Standard, Commercial Grades
These different grades of beef primarily indicate the amount, regularity, and quality of marbling or fat interlaced within the muscle or meat. The grading system is voluntary. When requested, it is performed by licensed federal graders to uniform United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) specifications. These are the grades assigned:
- Prime is the best, most abundantly marbled beef. It is rarely available at stores because restaurants buy most of it at the wholesale level, especially steaks.
- Choice is also excellent beef and is commonly the best beef available at stores.
- Select is still good, but much more lean and has less flavor and juiciness than choice.
- Standard and commercial grade beef is even leaner and is often sold without a specific label.
- Utility, cutter, and canner grades aren’t usually sold at grocery stores but are often used in commercially ground beef.
Note that unless otherwise labeled as choice or select, store-brand beef is often standard or commercial grade.
"Certified" isn’t used on its own, but rather to modify other labels terms. It verifies that the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service and the Agriculture Marketing Service evaluated the beef for class, grade, or other USDA-certifiable characteristics. It is legal for “certified” to be used in other circumstances, but then it must make clear the name of the organization responsible for the certification process, i.e. "[Specific Ranch Name's] Certified Beef".
USDA certification for organic beef forbids the use of growth hormones, antibiotics, genetically modified feed, or animal by-products in raising the livestock.
Without human intervention, cattle would eat grass their whole lives. Most cattle—including those raised to qualify for the organic label—are brought to feedlots and fattened up on grain and other feed. Studies have shown that beef from cattle that have been raised exclusively on grass has less saturated fat and more nutrients, including more omega-3 fatty acids, that grain-finished beef.
USDA grass-fed beef has only had a grass and hay diet and has access to pasture year-round. The USDA program is voluntary, however, without third-party verification. Labels that read "100 percent grass-fed" or "grass-finished" and are verified by a third party, such as the American Grassfed Association, guarantee the beef has only been fed grass and hay. If you're new to grass-fed beef, try it first as ground beef.
Locally Grown Beef
This term has no legal meaning, but any store or market that labels beef "locally grown" should be able to tell you, quite specifically, which farm or ranch-raised the cattle. Be sure to ask.
Kosher beef is prepared under rabbinical supervision according to Jewish customs and laws. It comes only from the forequarters (or front) of the cow.
Dry-Aged and Wet-Aged
Aging develops flavor and tenderizes the beef. Dry aging takes place in a chilled environment where moisture evaporates and concentrates the beef flavor. Wet aging involves vacuum-packing the meat so it keeps all its sellable weight and is generally thought to result in less flavor.
The USDA defines "natural" and "all-natural" as beef that has been minimally processed and contains no preservatives or artificial ingredients. Since this is all true of all fresh meat, this label is relatively meaningless at the meat counter.
Angus beef is from the Angus breed of cattle. It is prized for its intense marbling of fat within the meat that contributes to flavor and texture.
Wagyu or Kobe Beef
Wagyu cattle is a breed with even more intense marbling than Angus. Kobe beef comes from Wagyu cattle raised in Japan in a specific way involving sake and massage (no kidding).
Humanely Raised Beef
Different groups have developed standards for the humane treatment of animals. Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC) Certified Humane and Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) have the strictest standards and are the most transparent. USDA/Organic, American Humane Certified, and Global Animal Partnership are other organizations issuing humane treatment labels.
Naturally Raised Beef
The USDA is developing standards for "naturally raised." They are likely to include prohibitions against using hormones, antibiotics, and animal by-products.
No Antibiotics and No Hormones
Producers must submit documentation to the USDA that the cattle were not administered any antibiotics or hormones to use these labels. Note that there isn't any third-party verification or testing for these labels.