December 13, 2020
Texans love beef. Steaks and Burgers are our state’s most popular dishes. But, while we adore our red meat, as consumers, we tend to be much better at eating it than buying it. Many people don’t understand what goes into grading Prime beef or how to make the best buying decisions to fit their tastes and budgets.
Frequently, we are told that Prime beef is the best that money can buy. Most fine dining restaurants feature Prime steaks rather than Choice. This helps to reinforce the bias. But what are we really paying for with that grade? Why do we shell out the big bucks and blindly assume that prime is the best? Could a Choice steak be better than Prime?
How is Prime Beef Graded?
When most people think about a good steak, they imagine it to be tender, flavorful, and juicy. But the USDA’s Prime grade is haunted by two issues: it doesn’t look at flavor, and it doesn’t look at tenderness. All it considers is fat distribution, otherwise known as marbling.
Marbling is the dispersion within beef of the white fat in the red muscle tissue. For the past hundred years, our beef-grading system has been based on the now-controversial notion that marbling is the most important criterion for measuring beef quality. This misses some of the critical elements that people look for in beef:
- There is no regard for the age of the meat.
- No attention is paid to the characteristics of the breed.
- It doesn’t matter what the beef was fed.
- The flavor is not a factor.
- Even tenderness is ignored.
Why is the focus so narrow? When the United States adopted this system of grading, the cattle industry was a lot more uniform. Texans ate mostly meat breeds (as opposed to dairy cattle). Commercial beef was almost always finished with corn or other grains. This resulted in a primarily consistent pool of meat. Therefore, marbling was an excellent way to differentiate quality.
Due to our grading system’s one-dimensional nature, producers are encouraged to sell any cattle that qualify. This is especially true because of the premium consumers are willing to pay for Prime beef.
Much of the Prime beef on the market today is harvested from dairy cattle. Dairy farmers didn’t build these breeds with flavor or texture in mind. They do, however, carry a higher percentage of fat than most meat breeds. This is how less flavorful, less tender steaks keep scoring Prime.
Is Choice Beef better than Prime Beef?
But today, marbling isn’t everything. Customers are after flavor, tenderness, and a more sustainable, responsibly raised source of meat. The rise of the family-farm beef program has many Texans skipping the more expensive Prime cuts. Consumers are happy to have made the change.
By selling beef from one herd in one region of Texas and implementing uniform standards across the process, family-run programs such as Texas Beef Company can deliver more consistent quality. At the same time, they can assure consumers that the meat they sell is not from youngsters or dairy cows. The consumer can also buy from hormone-free and natural raising practices.
Grass-fed beef has far less fat than grain-fed, yet many prefer its flavor. Certain breeds, such as Herefords, naturally produce tender, great-tasting meat despite their lean characteristics. Unfortunately, under the current USDA grading model, many of these examples will have their meat listed as Choice, a step below Prime. The result: steaks that most consumers find better tasting and more tender than Prime are sold at a discount.
Family Farmed Choice Beef is a Better Value.
Next time you’re shopping for beef, don’t let the grading system fool you. Just because Prime meat has more fat doesn’t mean that it tastes better or is more tender than Choice. Besides, there are more factors to consider:
- Is the beef from the right breed?
- Will it be flavorful?
- Was it raised humanly?
- Was it exposed to steroids and growth hormones?
Remember, life’s too short. Eat Better Beef! Check out Texas Beef Company. We offer sustainably raised bulk beef and Premium Quality custom beef boxes. Each one is chock-full of all your favorite cuts. We also have tons of Texas Beef Company merchandise. Show the world that you Eat Better Beef!