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Guide to Meat

Thickness & Serving Sizes

Guide to Meat: Understanding the Grades of Meat

American Meat: The best in the world
Prime, Choice & Select, defined
Grading vs. Brand Names

American Meat: The Best in the World

In general, American meat is the best in the world. Breeding has become more scientific, and methods of animal care, feeding and slaughtering have improved. Processing, refrigeration techniques and transportation have also improved, resulting in better quality as meat moves from the farm to the packing center and the wholesale markets.

The U.S. government conducts stringent inspections of both live animals and carcasses. Each wholesale cut of an inspected and approved carcass must be stamped "Inspected and Passed by the Department of Agriculture." All fresh and processed meat products shipped from one state to another must have this federal stamp. Every butcher automatically looks for the stamp, because it indicates that meat is wholesome. However, the stamp tells nothing about the quality or grade of meat.

Prime, Choice & Select, defined

Meat inspection protects your health. The grading system describes quality, and predicts how tender, juicy and flavorful the meat will be. There are only three grades of meat for you to select when shopping: Prime, Choice and Select. Other grades are sold to canners and meat processors.

When you are shopping for meat, ask your butcher about the grades he carries. Lobel's of New York sells only USDA Prime.

Grades of Meat

Prime (best)

The highest grade of beef and lamb. Prime meat is marked with a purple shield-type roller stamp. Prime sells at premium prices, because it is produced in smaller quantities than other grades. Within the category of Prime, Lobel's of New York selects only the upper end of the USDA Prime. It takes a trained eye to pick only the top Prime.

Don't expect to find Prime meat in the supermarket. Top restaurants and hotels purchase most wholesale Prime meat and the rest is sold to the top butchers.

Choice (better)

The next grade after prime is Choice. Much of today's supermarket meat is USDA Choice. It is the most popular grade overall, and often bears a brand name.

Select (good)

Select is the lowest grade available to the consumer, and makes up the rest of meat in the supermarket. It may be sold with a house brand name.

Grading vs. Brand Names

The U.S. Department of Agriculture provides grade stamps to meatpackers for a fee. These stamps give both wholesale and retail shoppers a guide to meat quality. If you are dealing with a new butcher, ask him what grade of meat he is offering you. A butcher who wants your future patronage will show you the grade stamp.

Many packers use brand names to indicate the quality levels of their products, instead of using the top three federal grade stamps. Your butcher will be aware of what each name means, although you may not. Therefore, it is important to do business with a butcher you trust. If you have a good customer-butcher relationship, you can expect honest service.