Choice, grass-fed, organic: what do these terms all mean? Here are some of the most common labels put on beef at U.S. stores and what they really mean so you know what you're buying and can more easily find out from whence where your food comes.
Looking for beef recipes? Check out my favorite recipes for beef here. Or check out more general information for meat labels here.
1. Prime, Choice, Select, Standard, Commercial, etc.
Photo © Molly Watson
These different grades of beef primarily indicate the amount, regularity, and quality of marbling, or 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 otherwise labeled as Choice or Select, store-brand beef is often Standard or Commercial grade.
2. Certified Beef
Used with Permission from Getty Images
"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. (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. "Specific Ranch Names's Certified Beef".)
3. Organic Beef
Photo © Molly Watson
USDA-certification for organic beef forbids the use of growth hormones, antibiotics, genetically modified feed, or animal by-products in raising the livestock.
4. Grass-Fed Beef
Photo © Walter B. McKenzie, used with permission from Getty Images
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, that grain-finished beef. USDA grass-fed beef has only has 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. If you're new to grass-fed beef, try it first as ground beef (these burger recipes
will get you off to a tasty start!).
Learn more About Grass-Fed Beef here.
5. Locally Grown BeefThis 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. Ask!
6. Kosher BeefKosher beef is prepared under rabbinical supervision according to Jewish customs and laws and comes only from the forequarters (or front) of the cow.
7. Dry-Aged/Wet-Aged BeefAging 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.
8. Natural BeefThe 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.
9. Angus BeefAngus beef is from Angus cattle. It is prized for its intense marbling of fat within the meat that contributes to flavor and texture.
10. Wagyu/KobeWagyu 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).