Steak Grading Guide

Steak Grading Guide

Here at Tom Hixson, we have recently delved into what makes each cut of steak unique from another with our Ultimate Steak Guide and our Steak Marbling Guide. To understand steak better and fully appreciate how it is viewed in terms of quality, we will delve into the world of international steak grading. So how exactly is steak graded and how do different grading systems for different regions of the world compare? 

 
Steak Grading Guide

Beef quality grades are based on two main factors, the amount of intramuscular fat or ‘marbling’ and the age of the cattle at the time of slaughter. These grades are assigned by authorities such as the USDA and the Japanese Meat Grading Association as well as others, and indicate the quality of the steak.

Find out everything you need to know about grading steak and the grading systems for the USA and Japan, as these classifications are the most seen by the consumer, and arguably the most in-depth, with Tom Hixson of Smithfields.

What are The Steak Grades for The USDA? 

In the USA, steak is graded to specifications set by the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) in order to determine the quality of the product being sold. This impartial grading system allows beef steak producers to sell their produce under the following grades:

  1. Prime
  2. Choice 
  3. Select
  4. Standard
  5. Commercial
  6. Utility
  7. Cutter
  8. Canner

Prime’ is considered by the USDA to be the highest quality cut of meat according to their grading system. ‘Choice’ is second in quality, with ‘Select’ being the third highest quality available from the USDA assessors.

Whilst there are 5 other grades of meat, they are saved for industrial processes and often used in soups or saved for ground meat. It would be rare to find a steak under the ‘Select’ classification.

How Does the USDA Grade Steak? 

Steak grading for USDA standards is carried out by a member of the USDA or by an agency acting on behalf of the organisation. Whilst the grade of the steak is assessed by a human, 3 factors of grading remain unchanged: 

  • The age of the animal
  • The quantity of marbling
  • The quality of the meat
  • There are also other considerations for assessors at the USDA, which reportedly include the colour of the marbling as white flecks are preferred to yellow or beige flecks of intramuscular fat, however, the above 3 characteristics are most important. 

    White flecks of fat are attributed to the diet of the animal, with pasture-fed cattle producing whiter flecks of fat, which achieve a higher classification. 

    Since the US consumed 30 billion pounds of beef in 2021 alone, the quality of the beef cuts is assessed on a carcass-to-carcass basis. Whilst the USDA assesses every carcass to ensure that it is fit for human consumption, beef producers ask (and pay for) extra assessments on the beef cuts that they produce in order to differentiate their quality and ask for a higher price as a result of these classifications. 

    Since only 2-5% of beef will receive a ‘Prime’ classification, it is normally found in higher-end restaurants and specialist retailers. Many higher-end restaurants would also serve ‘Choice’ cuts, too, with ‘Select’ perhaps being favoured by family-friendly establishments where price point might be an issue. 

    To determine the cut's classification, we need to examine the animal's age, as well as the quality and production of marbled tissue.

    The Effect of Age on USDA Steak Rankings

    As a rule, younger meat is preferred to older meat. As such, USDA graders will award letters of maturity to carcasses based on a number of assessments. The USDA Maturity Scores are as follows:

    USDA Maturity Scores

    Estimated Cattle Age

    A

    2.5 years

    B

    2.5 to 3.5 years old

    C

    3.5 to 6 years old

    D

    6 to 8 years old

    E

    8 years +

     

    Maturity at the point of slaughter isn't always apparent. Some breeds of cows, living under certain conditions, may seemingly mature quicker than others. Assessors therefore consider the ‘physiological age’ of the animal by evaluating the shape, size and ossification of bone and cartilage. This is what is assessed to achieve USDA classification

    The main factors that are taken into consideration when USDA assessors are attempting to assess the maturity of a carcass include the texture, colour and firmness of the lean tissue exposed between the 12th and 13th rib. 

    To further estimate maturity, USDA graders will evaluate all cartilage that is adjoined to the backbone of the carcass, paying close attention to the colour and texture of the ribs. As the cattle age, the ends of these pieces of cartilage become harder and darker as they turn to bone. This process is known as ‘ossification’ and is the main way in which graders assess the maturity of the carcass.

    How Marbling Effects USDA Steak Grades

    As mentioned, ‘steak marbling’ is the phenomenon of intramuscular fat (not to be confused with intermuscular fat) which appears within the tissue fibres of the steak. This intramuscular fat allows the meat to cook more tenderly than it would without this marbling. It also allows the steak to become imbued with more flavour and juices than a steak with less marbling. 

    How is the Degree of Marbling Calculated 

    The degree of marbling is the largest contributor to the Quality Grade of the steak, and further grades are issued by the USDA in order to accurately assess the quality and amount of marbling. These grades are:

    Grade

    Marbling Score

    Prime +

    Abundant

    Prime

    Moderately Abundant

    Prime –

    Slightly Abundant

    Choice +

    Moderate

    Choice

    Modest

    Choice –

    Small

    Select +

    Slight

    Select –

    Slight

    Standard +

    Traces

    Standard °

    Practically Devoid to Traces

    Standard –

    Practically Devoid

     

    On our chart, we have the familiar designation on the left, but now a further score to help assessors grade the degree that the steak has marbled. This likely won't be reported to the consumer, however. This new grade is specified using a score out of 100 where 100 is ‘abundant’ marbling and 00 is considered ‘devoid’ of marbling.

    For additional information on steak marbling, read our comprehensive guide [Steak Marbling: A Comprehensive Guide]. In this blog, the team here at Tom Hixson assesses how beef marbling affects the grading of steak. 

    How the Beef Yield Grade Affects USDA Steak Grades

    In combination with the maturity and marbling seen within the muscle of the cow, the ‘Yield Grade’ is also assessed to indicate which classification the steak belongs under. Yield Grade, also known as ‘cutability’ identifies the yield of lean, red meat against waste fat. This is an estimate of the percentage retail yield from the 4 ‘primal cuts’ of beef. These primal cuts are: 

    • Chuck
    • Loin
    • Rib
    • Round

    Yield is graded as follows: 

    1. USDA 1 - Most Desirable
    2. USDA 2
    3. USDA 3 
    4. USDA 4 
    5. USDA 5 - Least Desirable 

    Yield Grade is assessed by the USDA based on four traits that are seen within the carcass of the animal. These traits are:

    • Hot carcass weight
    • Fat thickness of the 12th rib
    • Percent of kidney, heart and pelvic fat
    • Thickness of fat in the ribeye area

    Each of these factors is taken into consideration when the USDA grades the carcass of an animal and a score is issued to each carcass individually. This score will later go on to allow each cut to be classified as Prime, Choice etc. based on the findings. 

    Why is Steak Graded? 

    The USDA decided to incorporate grades into their assessment of meat to create a hierarchy of cuts available on the market. ‘Prime’ classification was first seen in 1927 when the USDA issued the grade to distinguish well-marbled meat from other less well-marbled cuts.

    Typically, British cows were preferred as they contained the most fat. However, as cultural views on fats changed in the ‘60s and ‘70s, customers preferred leaner cuts, reducing the marbling requirements for its top grades. 
    As cultures have continued to change, so have the demands of the consumer and the USDA. 

    Wagyu Beef, a variety that is native to Japan, is able to achieve marbling at a much higher quality and amounts than American and British cattle. Their classification therefore goes much higher than USDA classifications. 

    Wagyu Grades Explained

    Similar to USDA grading and classification, the Japanese Meat Grading Association created their own system to evaluate the meats available on their market. Due to breeding methods, the Japanese were able to create beef with much higher levels of marbling than the marbling that had been previously seen in Western markets.

    To display and classify this exquisite marbling seen in Japanese Wagyu Steaks, the JMGA created their own set of rules and standards by which they grade the cuts. 

    How is Wagyu Graded?

    When it comes to Wagyu grade beef, grading is done between the sixth and seventh rib based on only two important factors; 

  • Yield Grade
  • Meat Grade
  • ‘Yield’ is the proportion of meat compared to the weight of the carcass. ‘Grade’ takes into account the Beef Marbling Score (BMS), Beef Colour Standard (BCS), Beef Fat Standard (BFS), firmness and texture.

    For beef to be considered A5 Japanese Wagyu, it must receive a Grade A for yield and a Grade 5 for BMS, BFS, BCS, firmness, and texture.

    Shop For Wagyu Steak
    SHOP FOR A5 WAGYU STEAKS

    So What Does ‘A5’ Actually Mean?

    The Wagyu beef grade scale consists of a letter and a number, with the letter ranging from A to C (A being the best) and the number from 1 to 5 (5 being the best).

    The letter grade represents the amount of Wagyu that can be harvested from the cattle. Grade 'B' is considered standard, while grade 'A' is considered a premium and the most sought-after.

     

    YIELD GRADE

    A

    A1

    A2

    A3

    A4

    A5

    B

    B1

    B2

    B3

    B4

    B5

    C

    C1

    C2

    C3

    C4

    C5

    MEAT QUALITY GRADE

    1

    2

    3

    4

    5

    BEEF MARBLING SCORE

    1

    2

    3

    4

    5

    6

    7

    8

    9

    10

    11

     

    The yield grade is primarily used by producers and distributors to determine the price of meat, based on how much can be taken from the carcass. However, for consumers, what matters more is the quality grade of the meat. A higher grade indicates a higher level of marbling. 

    Wagyu Yield Score

    Before slaughter, a calculation is made to determine the percentage of meat, fat and bone that the cattle is composed of. The more meat, the higher the potential ranking. Unlike the USDA classification, where the test cut is made between the 12th and 13th rib, the Japanese graders take from the 6th and 7th rib. 

    Yield Score

    The estimated percentage of the yield from the cow is calculated using the following system:                                   

    (67.37) + 0.130 times area of rib eye (cm2) + 0.667 times thickness of short ribs (cm) - 0.025 times weight of half carcass (kg) - 0.869 times subcutaneous fat (cm) + 2.049 (if meat breed) = Yield Score

    This equation will be conducted by the assessors, which will give them a final number. This number is used to calculate the ‘Yield Score’, which is then reported to the customer as the ‘A’ in ‘A5 Wagyu’, for example. 

    Yield Rate

    Carcass Yield

    Yield Score

    A

    High

    72+

    B

    Regular

    +69 but -72

    C

    Low

    -69

     

    Generally, larger cattle have better-quality meat. The true quality of the beef is only revealed after slaughter when the grade letter is assigned to the Wagyu beef cut. 

    The first criterion used to judge Wagyu beef is the marbling or 'sashi' which refers to the ratio of fat to lean meat. The higher the ratio of fat, the better the quality of the meat. 

    Where the Japanese and USDA methods of classification vary is on the Beef Marbling Scale (BMS). ‘Prime’ designation from the USDA would be considered 3-4 on the BMS, whereas A5 Wagyu could potentially reach a classification of up to 12. This is why Wagyu is seen as the best available steak on the market.

    Wagyu Grades - Beef Colour Standard (BCS)

    The colour and glossiness of the fat are also important factors in determining the Wagyu beef’s grade. The shinier and lighter the fat, the higher the quality of the beef. 

    The colour of the tissue is also measured, with the following measurements being made by the assessors:

    B.C.S. Beef Colour Standard

    B.C.S.

    1

    2

    3

    4

    5

    6

    7

    *5 Wagyu

    No.5

    No.5

    No.5

    *4 Wagyu

    No.4

    No.4

    No.4

    No.4

    No.4

    *3 Wagyu

    No.3

    No.3

    No.3

    No.3

    No.3

    No.3

    *2 Wagyu

    No.2

    No.2

    No.2

    No.2

    No.2

    No.2

    No.2

    *1 Wagyu

    Below Wagyu Classification

     

    This chart above shows us where a cut will be classified based on its colour. The colour standard will dictate a colour score, which will then contribute towards the final classification.

    It also shows that colour extremes are not preferred, with the highest classification being awarded to a BCS of between 3 and 5.

    Wagyu Beef - Beef Fat Standard

    The grade of beef fat is determined by the colour, gloss, and quality of the fat present on the cut. A colour chart ranging from No.1 to No.7 is used to score the colour, known as the Beef Fat Standard (BFS).

    Colour Grade Beef Colour Standard Gloss
    1 Below Standard Non
    2 No.1 to No.7 Close To Standard
    3 No.1 to No.6 Standard
    4 No.1 to No.5 Good
    5 No.1 to No.4 Excellent

     

    High Quality Beef from Tom Hixson

    Whatever the occasion or price range, Tom Hixson has it available to order online. Our selection of USDA Prime and A5 Wagyu is extensive, as we use Creekstone Farms as our USDA butcher and our range of Wagyu-classified beef cuts.

    Our Wagyu Range comprises Wagyu cuts of Fillet, Sirloin, Chateaubriand, Mince, Beef Burgers, an entire Halal range and much, much more. We also have selections from Ireland, Australia, the USA, and of course Japan.

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