Filled with terms like choice, select, certified, organic, grass-fed, and free-range, reading the labels on beef sold in U.S. grocery stores can be intimidating. Some of these words refer to grades, while others indicate specific breeds or how the animals were raised. Familiarizing yourself with these labels will guide your shopping experience and ensure you know exactly what type of steaks and other beef cuts you're buying.
Prime, Choice, Select, Standard, Commercial Grades
Beef is graded to 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.
- Prime beef is the best, most abundantly marbled beef. It is rarely available at supermarkets because restaurants and artisan butcher shops buy most of it, especially steaks, at the wholesale level.
- Choice beef is also excellent and commonly the best beef available at stores.
- Select beef is still good and pretty tender, but it's much leaner and has less flavor and juiciness than choice beef.
- Standard and commercial grade beef is even leaner. It is often sold without a specific grading label and typically includes store-brand beef.
- Utility, cutter, and canner grades usually are not sold at grocery stores but instead used for commercially ground beef and processed foods.
"Certified" isn’t used on its own but rather to modify other label terms. It verifies that the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service and the Agriculture Marketing Service (AMS) evaluated the beef for class, grade, or other USDA-certifiable characteristics. It is legal for “certified” to be used in other circumstances, but it must clearly state the organization's name responsible for the certification process.
USDA organic certification follows guidelines overseen by the National Organic Program (NOP). To be certified organic, beef cattle must be raised in an eco-friendly manner that complies with animal welfare standards. The cattle must eat only organically certified feed, and be given outdoor access year-round with minimal use of finishing feedlots that give the animals sufficient space. The regulations also forbid the use of growth hormones, antibiotics, genetically modified feed, or animal by-products.
No Antibiotics and No Hormones
Beef that does not meet all of the organic certification requirements may be labeled as antibiotic-free or hormone-free. To use these labels, beef producers must submit documentation to the USDA that the cattle were not administered any antibiotics or hormones. "Raised without antibiotics" is sometimes abbreviated RWA. It's important to note that there is no testing for these labels to ensure their validity, and they may not be third-party verified.
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 raised exclusively on grass has less saturated fat and more nutrients, including more omega-3 fatty acids, than grain-finished beef.
In a voluntary program, the USDA grass-fed beef cattle diet is limited to natural grass and hay, and they're given pasture access year-round. Labels that read "100 percent grass-fed" or "grass-finished" are verified by a third party, such as the American Grassfed Association.
Similar to grass-fed beef, the label free-range refers to cattle that have a natural diet of grass. However, they are raised exclusively on a range, and allowed to roam and forage for their entire lives. Because the animals never see a feedlot, it is viewed as one of the most humane farming practices.
Farmers and ranchers can turn to different groups that have developed standards for the humane treatment of animals and label their beef products as humanely raised. The strictest and most transparent standards are the Certified Humane label from Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC) and A Greener World's (AGW) Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) label. Other organizations certify that partnering food producers use humane methods, so look for American Humane Certified and Global Animal Partnership (GAP) Certified labels.
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.
Locally Grown Beef
The term locally grown has no legal meaning but implies that the meat came from a relatively close source to where it's sold. Any store or market that uses the label on beef should be able to tell you which farm or ranch-raised the cattle.
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 Beef
Aging develops flavor and tenderizes the beef. Dry aging occurs 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.
Angus beef is from the Angus breed of cattle. Black Angus is more common the Red Angus, which is not recognized by the American Angus Association. One of the most popular beef cattle breeds in the U.S., Angus is prized for its intense marbling of fat that contributes to the flavor and texture of the meat.
Wagyu or Kobe Beef
Wagyu translates to "Japanese beef cattle" and includes four breeds. The meat has a more intense marbling than Angus, with a distinguished texture and flavor, and it's some of the most expensive beef in the world. Kobe beef comes from a specific breed of cattle (Tajima, or Japanese Black) raised in Japan's Hyogo prefecture. Despite the legends, only some farmers feed Kobe beef cattle beer and massage them with sake, and neither practice is required.
American wagyu beef is also available due to crossbreeding Japanese wagyu breeds with Angus cattle. Retaining qualities of both in the processed beef, it tends to be more affordable than Japanese wagyu and Kobe beef.
Agricultural Marketing Service. USDA. Beef Grading Shields.
USDA. Organic Livestock Requirements. 2013. https://www.ams.usda.gov/sites/default/files/media/Organic%20Livestock%20Requirements.pdf
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Nogoy KMC, Sun B, Shin S, Lee Y, Zi Li X, Choi SH, Park S. Fatty Acid Composition of Grain- and Grass-Fed Beef and Their Nutritional Value and Health Implication. Food Sci Anim Resour. 2022 Jan;42(1):18-33. doi: 10.5851/kosfa.2021.e73
USDA. National Agricultural Library. Animal Welfare Information Center: Certification Programs.