How to Tell What’s Prime and What Isn’t

Google U.S. Prime Steakhouse and you’ll get over 7.7 million listings in return. Considering that only 2% of all USDA graded beef legitimately qualifies as “Prime”, there are more restaurants across America claiming to serve “Prime” than there is actual prime beef available.

What’s in a Word?

The word “Prime” can be used in many ways. As an adjective – first in quality or value, as in first rate: This steak is prime! As a verb – to prepare or make ready: Prime the grill to prepare beef. As a noun – the highest quality, choice, best part of anything: I ordered Prime steak.Prime definition

According to a recent U.S. restaurant census conducted by The NPD Group, there are over 600,000 restaurants in the U.S. We see items on restaurant menus like Prime Rib, Prime Steaks, Prime Beef and Prime Burgers, described in a variety of ways, but are you truly being served USDA Prime graded beef?

Remember, of all the beef produced in the U.S. only about 2% is certified as USDA Prime grade. Some restaurants use clever menu descriptions that mislead their guests into thinking they’re ordering certified USDA Prime beef when in reality they may be serving something else. One well known national restaurant chain proudly promotes “U.S. Prime” on their menu, yet USDA Prime Graded beef is not served for all their steaks.

Other popular merchandising terms are, “Prime Cuts”, “Prime Aged” and “Prime Beef”, but none of these terms guarantee certified USDA Prime Graded Beef is being served. Using “prime” terms, allows restaurants to buy lesser grades of meat and sell them as “prime”. The ultimate goal being to make an extra buck by getting a premium price for a less than premium product.

USDA primeWhile there are no guarantees for truth in advertising on restaurant menus, one way to determine if you are ordering the real thing is to look for the words “USDA Prime”, or a symbol bearing the USDA PRIME shield. If you just see “U.S. Prime”, it means nothing.

Making the Grade

The USDA has ten degrees of marbling that determine the grades of beef. Marbling is the term used to define the abundance of little flecks of white fat that visually appear within the meat muscle – the more marbling, the higher the quality grade.

MarblingMost restaurants serve these three grades: PRIME, CHOICE and SELECT. USDA Prime is the highest quality grade designation in terms of marbling which helps deliver tenderness, juiciness and rich flavor.

Beef inspection is mandatory, however, beef grading is a voluntary practice. Yes, you can purchase State Inspected beef that is not graded by the USDA, or even USDA Inspected but ungraded beef. When beef is USDA graded, it is given a USDA shield stamp. That shield is the most accurate way to determine what grade of beef you’re actually eating.

Other marketed terms, which can be confusing, are: “Certified Angus Beef” (CAB), “Black Angus”, “Angus Beef” and “Premium Angus”. These terms describe the breed of the animal, not the USDA quality grade related to marbling. There are hundreds of branded and private label beef programs claiming to be unique in some way, but unless that Premium Angus carries a USDA grade certification, it is only describing the cattle breed, not the quality grade.

The next time you dine at a “Prime Steakhouse” look for the words “USDA Prime” or the USDA Prime Shield on the menu. (Use the same rule of thumb when buying raw meat.) If they’re not present, ask more questions. Avoid having, and paying more for something less than certified USDA Prime beef.

From the desk of John Cecala || Website  LinkedIn  @BuedelFineMeats  Facebook

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7 thoughts on “How to Tell What’s Prime and What Isn’t

  1. John,
    Thanks for the great information.
    How is grass finished beef graded?
    Any chance of equal marble to choice beef?

    • Hi Jack,
      Grass finished beef can be graded by the USDA if the producer requests it. Most grass finished beef is sold as ungraded. Generally, grass feed beef is leaner with less marbling and generally is equivalent to the USDA Select grade.

    • Hi John,
      Thanks for reading and for your comments. Actually the maturity grade is a measurement of the animal’s age versus tenderness.
      “A” maturity cattle are defined as those less than 30 months of age and “B” maturity defined as those from 30-42 months of age. You’re correct in that not all Prime beef comes from only “A” maturity cattle but most of it does. Here’s more information on the subject from Wayne R. Wagner and Phillip I. Osborne, West Virginia University Extension Livestock Specialists: http://www.wvu.edu/~agexten/pubnwsltr/TRIM/10202.htm

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