Sunday, May 13, 2007

A lesson on the USDA grade scale.

Time after time I explain the significance of USDA grading scales and parameters to my customers. The more I do this, the more I learn about the marketing ploys used by supermarkets to sell a lesser product. While I am not against anyone who buys their meat at a grocery store, I am against merchants who “sell” anything to a naive customer based on their lack of knowledge.

The USDA is very strict on its grading scales. For those that need proof, click here. Most beef that is processed in the United States is done through four or five major companies. These companies and their employees are continually inspected for health codes. They must conform or be shut down. Period. In fact, all of these companies have USDA inspectors on site at all times to make sure production runs smoothly and that all aspects of the company are within code.

There is a lot of talk out there about Mad Cow, E-Coli and other food born illnesses. Large Companies could not afford to be caught red-handed because when outbreaks occur, the USDA attacks with malicious precision. The source is found within days and said source is usually wiped out. In the past, these scares have been relatively isolated and the masses’ attention moves to tomorrow’s news. These companies (no names but one in particular) who had nearly 10 Billion in sales last year would not take that chance. With that said, I think it is apparent why the USDA and its ratings are better than the fancy sticker at your local supermarket’s meat counter.

Here is a list of the United States Department of Agriculture beef grades.

1. Prime – The most sought after and expensive grade of beef. Heavy marbling and consistent sizes are what this grade calls for. Very few carcasses make it out of the plants with this stamp.

2. Choice – The product of most restaurants and high end meat markets. Good marbling and less money than Prime making it a great choice for most.

3. Select – The most commonly seen grade of beef. Found in grocery stores across the country. Lean and cheap. I’d be willing to bet the last beef you consumed was Select.
4. Standard – Not up to the Select grade? It’s probably Standard and used for mass produced ground beef.
5. Commercial – Old beef that is has a less-than-desirable ease of cutting.
6. Utility – How many of you like paying your utilities every month? This is one you shouldn’t waste your money on.
7. Cutter – Ironic that it is called “Cutter” because the USDA says that the range in cutability among cattle that qualify for the minimum of this grade will be narrow.
8. Canner – Here is what the USDA had to say about this one. “Canner grade cattle are those which are inferior to the Cutter grade”.

Here comes the fun part.

Here is a list of words that could be substituted with Lie, Subjective or I’m about to overpay; Premium, Superior, Award Winning, Black Angus, Blue Ribbon, Organic, Natural, Free Range, etc. etc. etc.

I see stickers and labels claiming all of these things every time I go to a BBQ or walk down the isle at ___________ (insert wherever you buy meat). There is no premium, superior, award winning or blue ribbon certification programs out there. The guy behind the counter putting a shiny sticker on everything in sight doesn’t count. Sure, Black Angus is a great breed of cattle but only if it is graded Select or higher. Do you know the difference between Black Angus and Red Angus? This is an easy one. It just happens to be color of the hide. Around 1862, Hugh Watson, arbitrarily decided that black was the right color for the breed and now you buy Black Angus. I would have chosen red.

Organic, Natural and Free-range are for those who would like to feel good about what they eat. While nothing is wrong with knowing the animal had a slightly better life, it refers more to the processing of the animal as opposed to the quality of meat. Cows are not smart creatures. They survive as long as they do because we let them. We feed them, house them, breed them, milk them and slaughter them. Only babies and those in need get such good treatment (with the exception of the slaughter). The rest of us have to go to work to afford to do this to ourselves. Go figure.

Basically, what it boils down to is, buy your beef according to how the USDA has graded them. Stick to one of the three shields above. They are your best bet and you will be happier for it. And remember, the United States Department of Agriculture has the final word on quality.

*Edit* While I was looking for pictures for this entry, I came across a laughable product. Free-Range Eggs. I personally would like to know the dimensions of the area in which these eggs were free to roam as they saw fit.


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Michelle said...

I'm really appreciating these articles. I was not aware of what was true or not and if Black Angus was really all that special. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and advice.

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