As a child, I was a picky eater. I hated pizza. Seriously! But as I have grown up, so have my tastes. Now I consider myself a foodie. Because of my background in the meat industry, friends often ask for my advice when picking out a good steak. Are you ever stuck at the meat counter wondering which steak you should buy? What, other than price, is the difference between this choice cut and that select one?
Terms like choice and select are part of meat quality grades. The goal of quality grades is to predict the eating characteristics of the meat. Essentially, the higher the grade, the more likely you will have a satisfactory eating experience. Meat facilities pay the government to have USDA employees assign quality grades to carcasses. Quality grades will differ by species.
Beef quality grades are determined by the age of the animal and the amount of marbling in the ribeye muscle. What is marbling and how does it influence the eating experience? The technical term is intramuscular fat. These are the flecks of fat seen inside of the muscle. They melt into savory juices while cooking. The top grade for beef is prime, followed by choice, then select.
Lamb quality grades also depend on the age of the animal. However, instead of marbling, these quality grades consider flank streaking. This is the amount of fat along the flank muscles (think abdomen). It estimates the quality of the muscle. The lamb you see in stores will be graded prime or choice.
There are quality grades for pork, however, they are not a major factor in determining product quality. Pork products are graded by numbers, U.S. No. 1, 2, 3, and 4.
Did you know that meats are not the only products that receive quality grades? Your perishable items have standards too! The USDA has quality grades for our fruits, vegetables, and nuts, just to name a few. For example, eggs grade AA, A, and B. Fresh tomatoes receive grades like 1, 2, or 3. My favorite fruit, apples, are graded extra fancy and fancy. And of course, almonds have grades of fancy, extra no. 1, and no. 1. More information about specific grading factors is available online: http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/standards
Hopefully you are looking closer at the wide variety of information on your food labels. And now this quality guide can help you select a product to match your taste expectations. Bon appétit!