The Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906 made inspection mandatory for all meat that crossed state lines.
In 1967 The Wholesome Meat Act required that inspection of meat sold within a state meet inspection requirements at least as stringent as those of the federal system. Meat inspection is not synonymous with meat grading. Meat inspection provides assurances that meat is wholesome and accurately labeled. All meat that is sold must by law be inspected. Everyone pays for meat inspection through taxes.
Beef grading is optional and is paid for by meat packers and processors and ultimately by the consumer, in the price of beef. Beef is graded for quality by USDA graders according to standards established by the USDA.
Beef quality grades indicate palatability. While there are eight quality grades for beef, the three usually found at retail are Prime, Choice, and Select. Of all the beef carcasses offered for quality grading in the U.S.,
2% are graded U.S. Prime
44% U.S. Choice
27% U.S. Select
27% No Roll*
*No Roll carcasses are not quality graded and can be as good as any of the other grades at any time.
Quality grades are determined by estimating the age of the animal, the amount of marbling (flecks of fat within the lean of the Ribeye at the 12th rib), and by evaluating the texture of the Ribeye- its color and appearance.
When USDA Inspectors apply the blue grade stamp to a carcass it is applied with a rolling stamp. Hence the term No Roll for carcasses without a quality grade!
Young beef with the most marbling is given the Prime or highest quality grade. Prime is usually sold to restaurants, but may be available in some specialty retail markets. Choice is the most widely available grade in the retail market. Select has the least amount of marbling.
Aging is a natural process that arguably has the most impact on the flavor and tenderness of beef especially in cuts from the rib and loin.
Aging allows the natural enzymes in beef to tenderize the meat by breaking down specific proteins (connective tissue) in muscle fibers. Most of the tenderization occurs within the first 7-10 days of the aging process.
Two types of aging are practiced commercially: dry and wet aging.
Dry aging is the process of placing an entire carcass or wholesale cut without covering of packaging in a refrigerated room under humidity controlled conditions for up to 28 days. Too much humidity allows excessive microbial growth, too little causes excessive shrinkage. If the temperature gets too high, microbial growth increases significantly. During properly controlled dry aging, beef usually loses moisture. The dry aging process also adds flavor to beef, often described as “brown-roasted beefy flavor.” Today most dry aging is done by upscale steakhouses and specialty beef purveyors.
Wet aging refers to the aging of beef in vacuum bags under refrigerated conditions. Humidity control is not necessary for wet aging as the beef is tightly sealed in the packaging. Because most beef is vacuum packaged at the site of carcass cutting, wet aging is the predominant method of aging used today. By the time the vacuum-packaged beef reaches the retail store at least 7-10 days have usually elapsed. However, additional tenderization will occur with longer aging.
THE "OTHER" USDA GRADES
The remaining grades of beef such as Standard, Commercial, Utility, Cutter, and Canner, are not usually sold in grocery stores or butcher shops. They are usually reserved for uses that do not require better grades of beef. They come from older cattle, and the name "Canner" sort of explains itself.