Have you ever been confused or at the least had questions regarding the USDA Beef Grading system? Like, what are the differences between a Prime, Choice, Select, and Standard beef carcasses? What are the factors which go into determining Quality or Yield grade? Who and when is the grade determined? Who pays for the grading service? Is it mandatory or voluntary? What changes are currently taking place in beef grading? Lastly, how will these changes benefit the producer, feeders, packers, and consumers? The objective of this article is to answer and simplify some of the most frequently asked questions from producers, and to provide a glimpse into where beef grading is today, and changes that lie ahead.
The governing document for the US beef grading system is the Official United States Standards for grades of Carcass Beef promulgated by the Secretary of Agriculture under the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946 as amended. These standards are enforced by the US Department of Agriculture and annual congressional appropriation acts also affect the related authority for enforcement.
Developing national standards for the grading beef carcasses was first proposed in 1916, and the current standards are reprinted with amendments effective January 31, 1997. These standards for grades of beef are written primarily in terms of carcasses. However, they are also applicable to the grading of sides. To simplify phrasing of the standards, the words "carcass" and "carcasses" are used to also mean "side" or "sides."
Obviously, there have been a number of changes, improvements, and clarification over the years (see side bar). Most of the modifications have been science-based attempts to better classify beef in regards to palatability, or to provide improved standards for effective pricing, but in a few instances changes were simply to improve market perception. It should come as no surprise that there continues to be significant improvements through the use of modern technologies today.
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