Beef Quality Grades
A quality grade is a composite evaluation of factors that affect palatability of meat (tenderness, juiciness, and flavor). These factors include carcass maturity, firmness, texture, and color of lean, and the amount and distribution of marbling within the lean. Beef carcass quality grading is based on (1) degree of marbling and (2) degree of maturity.
Marbling (intramuscular fat) is the intermingling or dispersion of fat within the lean. Graders evaluate the amount and distribution of marbling in the ribeye muscle at the cut surface after the carcass has been ribbed between the 12th and 13th ribs. Degree of marbling is the primary determination of quality grade.
Degrees of Marbling
Each degree of marbling is divided into 100 subunits. In general, however, marbling scores are discussed in tenths within each degree of marbling (e.g.,Slight 90, Small 00, Small 10).
|Prime +||Abundant 00-100|
|Prime °||Moderately Abundant 00-100|
|Prime -||Slightly Abundant 00-100|
|Choice +||Moderate 00-100|
|Choice °||Modest 00-100|
|Choice -||Small 00-100|
|Select +||Slight 50-100|
|Select -||Slight 00-49|
|Standard +||Traces 34-100|
|Standard °||Practically Devoid 67-100 to Traces 00-33|
|Standard -||Practically Devoid 00-66|
In addition to marbling, there are other ways to evaluate muscle for quality. Firmness of muscle is desirable, as is proper color and texture. Desirable ribeyes will exhibit an adequate amount of finely dispersed marbling in a firm, fine textured, bright, cherry-red colored lean. As an animal matures, the characteristics of muscle change, and muscle color becomes darker and muscle texture becomes coarser.
Maturity refers to the physiological age of the animal rather than the chronological age. Because the chronological age is virtually never known, physiological maturity is used; and the indicators are bone characteristics, ossification of cartilage, color and texture of ribeye muscle. Cartilage becomes bone, lean color darkens and texture becomes coarser with increasing age. Cartilage and bone maturity receives more emphasis because lean color and texture can be affected by other postmortem factors.
Cartilage evaluated in determining beef carcass physiological maturity are those associated with the vertebrae of the backbone, except the cervical (neck). Thus the cartilage between and on the dorsal edges of the individual sacral and lumbar vertebrae as well as the cartilage located on the dorsal surface of the spinous processes of the thoracic vertebrae (buttons). Cartilage in all these areas are considered in arriving at the maturity group. The buttons are the most prominent, softest and least ossified in the younger carcasses. As maturity proceeds from A to E, progressively more and more ossification becomes evident. Ribs are quite round and red in A maturity carcasses, whereas E maturity carcasses have wide and flat ribs. Redness of the ribs gradually decreases with advancing age in C maturity, and they generally become white in color because they no longer manufacture red blood cells and remain white thereafter. Color and texture of the longissimus muscle are used to determine carcass maturity when these characteristics differ sufficiently from normal.
There is a posterior-anterior progression in maturity. Thus, ossification begins in the sacral region and with advancing age proceeds to the lumbar region and then even later it begins in the thoracic region (buttons) of the carcass. Because of this posterior-anterior progression of ossification, even young A maturity carcasses will have some ossification in the sacral cartilage.
In terms of chronological age, the buttons begin to ossify at 30 months of age. Determine age using thoracic buttons. When the percentage ossification of the cartilage reaches 10, 35, 70, and 90 percent, the maturity is B, C, D, and E, respectively.
Carcasses are stratified into five maturity groups, based on the estimated age of the live animal
|Carcass maturity||Approximate live age|
|A||9 – 30 mos.|
|B||30 – 42 mos.|
|C||42 – 72 mos.|
|D||72 – 96 mos.|
|E||> 96 mos.|
- Sacral vertebrae (first to ossify)
- Lumbar vertebrae
- Thoracic vertebrae (buttons – last to ossify)
- Size and shape of the rib bones
- Condition of bones
Ossification of the vertebral column
|Sacral||Distinct separation||Completely fused||Completely fused||Completely fused||Completely fused|
|Lumbar||No ossification||Nearly completely ossified||Completely ossified||Completely ossified||Completely ossified|
|Thoracic||No ossification||Some ossification||Partially ossified||Considerable ossification (outlines of buttons are still visible)||Extensive ossification (outlines of buttons are barely visible)|
Condition of the bodies of the split chine bones:
- A- Red, porous and soft
- B- Slightly red and slightly soft
- C- Tinged with red, slightly hard
- D- Rather white, moderately hard
- E- White, nonporous, extremely hard
Appearance of the ribs:
- A- Narrow and oval
- B- Slightly wide and slightly flat
- C- Slightly wide and moderately flat
- D- Moderately wide and flat
- E- Wide and flat
Color and Texture – As maturity increases, lean becomes darker in color and coarser in texture
Lean Maturity Descriptions
|Maturity||Lean Color||Lean Texture|
|A0||Light cherry-red||Very fine|
|B0||Light cherry-red to slightly dark red||Fine|
|C0||Moderately light red to moderately dark red||Moderately fine|
|D0||Moderately dark red to dark red||Slightly coarse|
|E0||Dark red to very dark red||Coarse|
Balancing lean maturity and bone maturity:
- Use a simple average when bone and lean maturities are within 40 units of each other.
- When there is more than 40 units difference in lean and bone maturity, average the two maturities and adjust the average 10% toward the bone except when:
Crossing the B/C line
- If the average of the lean and bone maturities doesn’t move across the B/C line from the bone maturity side (e.g., Bone = B and Lean = C with the average being B or Bone = C and Lean = B with the average being C); average the two maturities and adjust the average to the nearest 10% toward the bone.
- If the bone and lean maturities are not considerably different, but one is in B maturity and the other in C maturity and the average of the two moves across the B/C line from the bone maturity side, the overall maturity will be on the side of bone maturity — it will be either B-100 or C-00.
- In no case may overall maturity be more than one full maturity group different than bone maturity. A80 lean + D20 skeletal = C20 overall.
Determination of Final Quality Grade:
After the degree of maturity and marbling has been determined, these two factors are combined to arrive at the Final Quality Grade. The fundamentals involved in applying quality grades are learning the degrees of marbling in order from lowest to highest and minimum marbling degrees for each maturity group and understanding the relationship between marbling and maturity in each quality grade.
Step-Wise Procedure for Quality Grading Beef Carcasses
1. Determine carcass skeletal maturity by evaluating the degree of skeletal ossification in the top three thoracic vertebra (buttons), and the sacral and lumbar vertebra. Also evaluate the color and shape of the ribs. Determine lean maturity by evaluating the color and texture of the lean in the ribeye exposed between the 12th and 13th ribs.
Skeletal Maturity + Lean Maturity = Overall Maturity
A60 + A40 = A50 (Simple Average)
B60 + A80 = B30 (>40; 10% to bone)
C60 + B10 = C00 (B/C line)
D60 + B20 = C60 (<=100% from bone)
2. Evaluate the marbling in the ribeye and determine the marbling score.
Overall Maturity + Marbling Score = USDA Quality Grade
A70 + Sm40 = Ch-
B60 + Md40 = Cho
3. Determine lean firmness to ensure that the minimum degree of firmness specified for each maturity group is met.
Table illustrating the minimum marbling score requirements for USDA quality grades within each final maturity group
Final maturity score USDA Quality Grade A00 B00 C00 D00 E00 Prime + AB00 AB00 — — — Prime o MAB00 MAB00 — — — Prime - SLAB00 SLAB00 — — — Choice + MD00 MD00 — — — Choice o MT00 MT00 — — — Choice - SM00 — — — — Select + SL50 — — — — Select - SL00 — — — — Standard+ TR00 TR00 — — — Standard- PD00 PD00 — — — Commercial+ — — MD00 SLAB00 AB00 Commercialo — — MT00 MD00 SLAB00 Commercial- — — SM00 MT00 MD00 Utility+ — — SL00 SM00 MT00 Utilityo — — TR00 SL00 SM00 Utility- — — PD00 TR00 SL00
AB = Abundant; MAB = Moderately Abundant; SLAB = Slightly Abundant; MD = Moderate; MT = Modest; SM = Small; SL = Slight; TR = Traces; PD = Practically Devoid.
Carcasses with B, C, D, or E final maturity scores require an increasing amount of marbling as maturity increases to remain in the same quality grade.
Carcasses having B final maturity scores with Small and Slight marbling must grade U.S. Standard. There is no U.S. Select grade for B maturity carcasses.