Not so long ago, I did a bit of a rant on Pink Slime (Finely Textured Ammonia-Treated Ground Beef) which actually became a consumer's revolt and a large number of grocery stores and restaurants either went on the record as to their not selling it or using it, or as to their discontinuing its use. Additionally, several grocery stores that did use it said they would start labeling any ground beef that contained it to allow the customers to choose to use it or avoid it. Ultimately, a couple of meat processing plants that made the stuff went out of business due to their parent company going bankrupt and they cried foul over it. The bottom line is that the consumer has the right to know what is in their ground beef, and if the product is safe, it should have been revealed to be in the meat from the moment it was first used, rather than to be exposed to be as such by the media.
Now let's cut through the language of types of beef, cuts and quality:
USDA Beef Cuts and Grades--A Quick Guide
|Note: Canada uses same numbers/names except for Round;|
Canada uses the word "Hip" instead of "Round"
And for those of you that don't know marbling, here is a visual guide with some ribeyes:
And here is a guide to what maturity of the cow means:
|Carcass maturity||Approximate live age|
|A||9 - 30 mos.|
|B||30 - 42 mos.|
|C||42 - 72 mos.|
|D||72 - 96 mos.|
|E||> 96 mos.|
And a description of these categories as well:
Utility, Cutter, and Canner grade are rarely used in foodservice operations and primarily used by processors and canners. There are five beef yield grades – 1 to 5, which estimate the yield of saleable product, with YG 1 having the highest and YG 5 the lowest. Although consumers rarely see or are aware of it, yield grade was an important marketing tool for packers and retailers. The conversion from carcass and bone-in primals to boneless, trimmed cuts has reduced the importance. Traditionally, beef sold in steakhouses and supermarkets has been advertised by its USDA grade; however, many restaurants and retailers have recently begun advertising beef on the strength of brand names and the reputation of a specific breed of cattle, such as black AngusWhew! And if that's not enough, here's a guide for the cuts that are Kosher: Notice Nothing towards the back of the cow past the Rib/Plate regions, plus it must be raised and slaughtered according to Jewish dietary rules. Oy Vey!!!
So what can we take out of this? Your best beef would be from a 9 to 30 month cow with slightly abundant marbling of intramuscular fat (a source of flavour and what makes the beef tender), of yield grade 1, maturity A--graded US Prime by the USDA. Does this mean Standard, Commercial and lower grades of beef aren't for human consumption? Absolutely not!
Thanks to grinding up of beef, some of the less desirable cuts can be made into good burgers. Thanks to slow cooking techniques--long time over temperatures in the low 200s Fahrenheit (smoking or with a slow cooker), beef that would normally be tough can be made tender as the connective tissue melts. Additionally, a lot of steakhouses and home grillers will rub and marinate meat in a mixture of oil and alcohol, and use melted butter or olive oil during the cooking process to make tough beef more tender and edible. And it is interesting to note that many of these techniques were developed by lower income families and restaurateurs in order for them to be able to have their own delicious beef dishes at a much lower price.
And recent news indicates that the record price for cattle carcasses of the past year or so have kept beef prices high, partly due to an increased demand for the lower grades of beef. The USDA grading system is also voluntary, I might add. However, ever since Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, the USDA's role in ensuring the safety of the food we eat, including meat, is crucial. For more FAQs on beef from the USDA, visit: Beef from Farm to Table.
Remember: Don't Have a Cow!
Zao an, Y'all!