Beef: Know Your Label Lingo
Prime, Choice, Select, Standard, Commercial, etc.: These different grades of beef primarily indicate the amount, regularity, and quality of marbling (i.e., fat) interlaced within the beef.
- • Prime is the best, most abundantly marbled beef. It is rarely available at stores because restaurants buy most of it at the wholesale level.
- • Choice is also excellent beef and is commonly available at stores.
- • Select is still good but much leaner and with less flavor and juiciness.
- • 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 it’s labeled “Choice” or “Select,” store-brand beef is often Standard or Commercial grade.
Certified: This term 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. (Note that 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., “John Doe Ranch Certified Beef”.)
Dry-Aged/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.
Kosher: Kosher beef is prepared under rabbinical supervision according to Jewish customs and laws and comes only from the forequarters (or front) of the cow.
Natural: 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: Angus beef is from Angus cattle. It is prized for its intense marbling of fat within the meat that contributes to flavor and texture.
Wagyu/Kobe: 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 that involves feeding the cattle sake and massaging them (no kidding).
Grass-fed: Without human intervention, cattle would eat grass their whole lives. Most cattle (including organic) are brought to feed lots and fattened up on grain and other feed. Studies have shown that beef from cattle that has been raised exclusively on grass has less saturated fat and more nutrients, including omega-3 fatty acids, than “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% 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.
No Antibiotics/No Hormones: Producers must submit documentation to the USDA that their cattle were not administered any antibiotics or hormones in order to use these labels. Note that there isn’t any third-party verification or testing for these labels.
Organic: USDA requirements for organic meat forbids the use of growth hormones, antibiotics, genetically modified feed, or animal by-products in raising the livestock. Organic meat is certified by the USDA.
Naturally Raised: The USDA is developing standards for “naturally raised.” They are likely to include prohibitions against using hormones, antibiotics, and animal by-products.
Humanely Raised: Different groups have developed standards for the humane treatment of animals. 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.
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