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Understanding USDA Beef Grading

A frequent question we receive from customers and prospective customers is if our beef is "Prime" or "Choice" grade. It is a common question because on traditional retail packages, the USDA quality grade is a key indicator to the value and correlating price charged for that steak or roast cut.

Long story very short, the beef offered via direct purchase from Post 5 Cattle Co. is NOT formally USDA quality graded, but we can provide information that will help you understand how it stacks up to the Prime, Choice, and Select graded beef you are used to seeing in retail (skip down to the "Post 5 Cattle Co. Beef Quality" section below if that is all you care about).

Fast-forward to find specific info:

A Post 5 Cattle Co. Beef Rib Eye Steak
A Post 5 Cattle Co. Beef Rib Eye Steak

USDA Safety Inspection

Our beef (and any provider who is selling meat by the cut/package directly to you, through retailers, or food service) is USDA certified for safety. It is processed at a facility with a USDA safety official on-site to comply with these requirements. This inspection includes confirming that cattle are handled and harvested at the facility with the highest standards for animal health and safety from the time they are unloaded at the facility, to when they are euthanized. The sanitation standards of the facility, and inspection of specific organs ensure that the beef will be safe for human consumption.

All beef that is legally sold at retail, to restaurants/distributors, and in small quantities must be processed in a facility that is USDA safety inspected. A main reason for this is to prevent foodborne illness outbreaks from unsafe product being distributed widely. This process affords opportunity for USDA Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) investigation and recall when product safety is in question, designed to prevent the wide consumption of improperly handled and potentially unsafe foods.

The beef we sell by the quarter, half, and whole to one individual or family ("custom beef") is also processed under USDA safety inspection. It is legal however, for beef purchased this way (it is technically sold as a share of a live animal, with packaging clearly marked NOT FOR RESALE) to be processed under the State Exempt program, which includes safety standards set by the Washington State Department of Agriculture. The standards are very similar, but it is regulated and inspected at the state level because the product is consumed locally, and directly by the buyer.

The other relevant USDA inspection is quality grading, offered by a separate division called the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS). Its’s a voluntary program that beef processors and companies pay for, unlike a USDA inspector that is mandatory for any USDA facility. USDA safety inspectors don’t quality grade, and USDA quality graders don’t inspect.

USDA Quality Grading

The additional, completely optional and voluntary USDA quality inspection that would result in a Prime, Choice or Select grade (or other grades we'll dive into below) is completely optional and voluntary. The processor or butcher (and their customers, like us) must pay for this service. To our knowledge, only the two large processing facilities in Washington, owned by Agri Beef and Tyson Foods elect for USDA quality grading.

When beef is sold as a commodity, or under a widely distributed brand name (such is the case with the two examples above), USDA quality grades are important to define and standardize the product attributes and value of the cuts from a carcass within the beef marketplace. This is important to, for example, a company like Costco or a steakhouse restaurant chain, because the quality grade is a way to standardize what their buyers choose and offer to their customers (likely, you), who expect the same experience every time they buy cuts or dine in their establishments.

How Beef is Quality Graded

How is beef graded? This is standardized as much as possible, in an art and science kind of way. In a processing facility, each side of beef is cut uniformly to expose the meat between the 12th and 13th rib. A human grader employed by USDA AMS visually inspects this same spot on every carcass. Historically, graders used a combination of charts, training, and experience to decide on the grade. These days graders are typically aided by a scanner that produces a digital image of the area that shows a "heat map" of the visible intramuscular fat, or "marbling" of that section. This enhances the data a grader is using, and cuts down on human error, bias, experience, and training variables to produce an even more standardized grading system.

To simplify what the grader and the tech are looking for to determine grade, it's the quantity and consistency of the marbling. The more evenly distributed marbling, the higher the grade. A section with evenly sized and evenly distributed ribbons and flecks of bright, white fat running through the whole muscle will grade the highest.

Grass-finished beef will have more yellow (not white) marbling and will not achieve the marbling that a grain finished animal will produce. Age is also a factor in grading, and grass-finished animal is typically older as it takes longer to reach slaughter weight. So, the majority of grass-finished beef is not quality graded, as it will not achieve the Prime/Choice market value. While cattle genetics plays a great part in the grading potential of carcass, it is safe to say that grass-finished beef is not raised and marketed to compete with grain-finished marbling and tenderness.

To note, if you buy "grass-finished beef" from a producer and it has heavy, white marbling it's probably worth it to ask what the animal was specifically raised and finished on. It is unlikely to be 100% forage fed if that is something you care about.

While we're on the topic, here is a break down of beef labels you'll see in the market place and what they mean in terms of how the cattle were raised.

The whole point of the USDA grading system is to predict the quality of the eating experience - primarily tenderness and flavor that the average of that beef carcass will produce. The more it potentially delivers dictates the quality grade, and thus, the value of the beef. This will in turn dictate the price paid back to the producer who marketed the cattle, and how much the customer and consumer will pay for the resulting beef.

Other grades are factored in -- for example Yield Grade, which formulates how much of the carcass will result in edible beef, versus the fat on the outside of the cuts that need will need to be trimmed away (and mixed with lean trim to make ground beef). An excess of external fat will reduce the .The width of the inside of that 12th and 13th Ribeye and the measurement of the fat on the outside of the cut will further impact the overall grade and value of the carcass in question.

The finer points of this grading process refine the highest, best use of that beef in the overall demand chain. Is it Prime and ready for prime-time at a fine dining restaurant? Or is it better suited for the fast casual experience?

Other USDA Quality Grades

The main beef grades that are relevant to purchasing beef, in order of quality and value in the market are Prime, Choice, and Select. There are five more grades used for processed, canned products that do not typically end up in a fresh meat case. Think frozen burritos, canned hash and chili, on down to any product you can think of containing meat, that is pre-cooked and seasoned.

Like we covered, age, genetics and what cattle are fed are the key factors in how a beef will grade. Some cattle are raised for reproduction (mother cows on a ranch), or primarily for dairy, so when they enter the beef supply it's not going to be for highly marbled steaks, but the beef is safe and nutritious for other purposes like ground beef and prepared products where tenderness and intramuscular fat content is not of significant value.

There are subcategories within each grade. Factors we haven't gotten into, like color plays a role in the grade determination.

Tap on the chart above to see a more detailed explanation of what factors determine USDA beef quality grades. Most ranchers are aiming for that Prime status, but only 2 -4% of the US beef supply achieves Prime grade. Due to our increasing understanding and use of breeding and feeding choices in beef production, the US is producing more Prime beef than ever. It's why it can be found in the cases of Costco and other retailers more readily, and not just in the finest white table cloth restaurants like back in the day.

Post 5 Cattle Co. Beef Quality

One of the main questions we get is, "what grade is your Post 5 Cattle Co. beef?" The short answer is that the beef we sell directly to our customers is not USDA quality graded. Why? Mostly because (referring back to the top of this page) the USDA safety inspected, small family-owned beef processing facilities we work with do not offer a USDA quality grader.

So, while we don't always know definitively the USDA quality grade of our beef, we do know quite a bit about how it stacks up, here's how:

  • The butcher sends us pictures of every carcass of the cattle we have harvested for our customers and gives us his opinion on how it would USDA grade. We match that with our own visual review. To assess our work and predict how satisfied our customers will be, it is important to assess how our beef will stack up to what folks are used to buying elsewhere (typically Prime and Choice from retail and restaurants).

  • We use our own training, experience, and the fact we get grading reports back from Agri Beef and Tyson Foods on similar cattle - meaning cattle we feed for other ranchers with the same care and feed rations we feed our own, and we see that 97% of our commercial fed cattle grade at Choice and Prime. By one of these facilities, we we've been told that we are the highest grading feed yard in the PNW.

  • In addition to this consistent, USDA quality grade tested finish-feeding approach, the beef we offer via Post 5 Cattle Co. comes from cattle we have bred with an investment in high quality beef cattle genetics, then raised from birth. The only step of the process we rely on others for is the harvesting, cutting and wrapping.

  • Like most pursuits, with much repetition, learning, and intentionality, you hit what you're aiming at. While we're a "mom and pop shop" of a small business, raising and feeding beef cattle is what we do for a living. We are driven to be successful at it, investing the time and energy it takes be best in class. Our measure of success is happy, repeat customers who provide honest feedback that shows, better than any USDA grader stamp, that we're doing something right.

One benefit to getting a confirmed USDA grade would be for our customers to be able to compare the price/value of our beef to what is found at large in retail and restaurants that is graded. But the costs don't outweigh the benefits to incurring that expense (the processor would have to charge more, we would have to charge more, you get the picture), plus we don't really see retail beef as our "competition".

What do we focus on in absence of an official USDA quality grade? Simply put, consistency and constant improvement. So when our customers purchase from us once, when they have a great experience with tender, flavorful beef raised by us with that goal in mind, they know when they come back to buy more, the next round will be as enjoyable or better. It's just how we're built. We understand that is what most people want - in exchange for your hard earned dollars, a consistently enjoyable cooking and eating experience with our beef.

We hope this clarifies the USDA beef grading system and how Post 5 beef fits into the beef market. This is intended to be a resource to you in all your beef shopping, and perhaps provide more specific questions to ask when approaching a local beef producer, or retail meat counter.

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