What does it all mean? A diner’s guide to… USDA beef
Date Published : 17 Jul 2018


Sometimes food terminology is used irresponsibly - or even misleadingly - to justify inflated prices on the menu or pompous claims from the kitchen. If you don’t know your Angus from your Wagyu, how can you know what you’re really getting?

Restaurants in Hong Kong regularly promote their beef as USDA Certified. USDA stands for United States Department of Agriculture, when it’s applied to beef, the term simply means that the meat has been graded for quality by the United States Department of Agriculture. On its own, the term USDA Certified tells you very little about the quality of the meat. More important, is the specific quality grade that the beef has been awarded with by the USDA.

Besides grading beef for quality, the USDA has many certification programs guaranteeing that your beef comes from the breed of cow that the producer claims it does. But if the menu just says ‘USDA beef’, you’ll have to ask your waiter to explain exactly what kind of USDA certification and what quality grading the meat has received.

USDA beef certification programs are vital for American farmers wishing to export their produce as they prove that their products meet the legal requirements for sale in different countries. For example, it is illegal to administer growth hormones to cattle in the European Union, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Argentina. Therefore, to be sold in these countries, American beef must have USDA certification proving that it has not been treated with hormones. However, the same restriction does not apply to beef sold in Hong Kong.

Whether or not it is safe to consume products from cows treated with growth hormone is an ongoing debate, although a report by the European Union found that it does cause "severe and unnecessary pain, suffering and distress" to the cattle. As long as this practice persists it is left up to diners to ask questions and make choices about which beef they consume and where they buy it from. Alone, the words ‘USDA beef’ on the menu do not tell you whether the meat has come from a cow that was raised on an industrial-scale feedlot while being injected with antibiotics and growth hormone, or if it is grass-fed and organic.

What to look out for

The top grades of USDA beef are called Prime and Choice. Less than 3% of American beef qualifies for Prime grading. Having good marbling is the key to being graded Prime (see our article on Wagyu for more about how marbling keeps beef tender, tasty and juicy.) Choice meat has a lower fat content and less marbling, and represents more than half of USDA beef produced.

Select is a lower grade of beef that is leaner, dryer and less flavoursome. Below that come Standard and Commercial grades. These grades of meat don’t make great steaks, but they’re quite adequate for use in dishes with flavoursome sauces.

The lowest three grades of USDA beef are Utility, Cutter and Canner. These are the rock bottom quality grades and you’re only likely to find them being used ground up in sausages, hot dogs, burgers… or dog food.

If your beef is labeled as USDA Organic, you can be pretty sure that it’s from a good source. USDA Organic beef comes from cattle that are allowed to graze naturally on feed that is also from organic sources, rather than being raised in a feedlot on grain - which is not a cow’s natural food of choice. USDA Organic cattle will not have been given growth hormones or antibiotics.

Antibiotics are routinely used on otherwise healthy farm animals in many countries. 80% of antibiotics sold in the US are used on animals raised for food, most of these animals are healthy anyway but are given the drugs preemptively. This practice carries a real risk of increasing antibiotic resistance in potentially dangerous bacteria. However, USDA issues certification for antibiotic-free meat, so when buying USDA beef it is worth making sure that it it is certified as antibiotic-free.

Certification schemes, such as those run by the USDA, can ensure the provenance and quality of your food, but only when used responsibly by the people selling it to you. If the menu uses terminology in a vague way, it’s always worth asking your waiter to elaborate. If they’re selling you a genuinely high-quality product, they should be able to tell you all about it. And only by knowing the real meaning of the terminology they use can you know the difference between good beef and a load of bull.

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