Making the Grade

Making the Grade

Understanding what makes meat prime.

Making the Grade

It’s easy to misconstrue what the word PRIME actually means when it comes to great steak. Part of that is knowledge, and the other is marketing. When you see USDA PRIME, on a label or a menu, you should be getting the real thing. When the word prime is used solely as an adjective to describe a cut of meat, you’re probably not. This is important to remember, because less than 3% of ALL beef graded qualifies as USDA prime grade.     

Recent trends show a decline in the marketing of prime graded beef because it is not as readily available as it once was in grocery stores and restaurants. Nowhere is this more apparent than on steakhouse and retail meat websites. Patrons often pay prime grade prices for “premium” choice cuts. Easy to miss, if you’re not looking for it.

USDA CHOICE accounts for 66% of all graded meat. The name of the game here is marbling. Prime grade steaks present the highest marbling levels which delivers the best flavor experience. Steak aficionados worship prime graded cuts for good reason – buttery fat. High levels of marbling deliver veins of fat throughout the muscle. When cooked to perfection, the fat melts into the meat and delivers a nirvana of tender, juicy flavor.

Choice graded steaks present less marbling, but can also deliver great taste experience. Get the most out of USDA CHOICE beef by selecting cuts that fall in the “upper 2/3” of the grading level.

USDA SELECT graded meats are a lot leaner than Choice.They have less flavor and juiciness, and work well with marinating and braising. Ungraded beef is used in food manufacturing and grinding.

One final note. Consider where and how the beef you want to buy is sourced. Main stream grocers and restaurants source their meat from the Big 4 – Cargill, JBS, National Beef & Tyson – who account for 70% of the market. Smaller meat companies have greater flexibility in working closely with ranchers dedicated to sustainable and humane breeding.

Little Wolf Foods exclusively sells USDA Prime & USDA Upper 2/3 Choice beef directly sourced from Midwest ranchers. Learn more about USDA grading practice and compliance at:


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