Whether it's a burger, a steak or a roast, beef is the starting point for many meals. Here's how to purchase, decipher labels and more.
Beef is used in a wide variety of ways and it comes in a fairly impressive array of forms, from value-added cuts ready for stews, kabobs and stir frys to large roasts that must be portioned after cooking.
Beef is specified according to two broad defining categories. One is the “cut” and the other is the “grade.” The cut represents the part of the carcass being utilized, as well as the general form that part takes (roast, steak, cube, etc.). The grade is an official designation representing the general quality of the meat.
The Food and Safety Inspection Service or FSIS, part of the USDA, requires meat inspection for all beef sold at foodservice and retail levels. This is paid for by taxpayers and done by an in-plant USDA inspector.
Beef is graded by USDA inspectors at the request (and cost) of the producer (a lot of beef is also sold ungraded). Each inspected carcass is assigned one of eight grades.
In descending order of quality, they are Prime, Choice, Select, Standard, Commercial, Utility, Cutter and Canner. Prime, which represents only about two percent of all beef sold in the U.S., is mostly found in high-end restaurants and catering operations, while Utility, Cutter and Canner are reserved mostly for processed products ranging from raw ground beef to canned chili and even dog food. The four intermediate grades represent the bulk of the raw beef sold in foodservice.
These grades are standardized, but beyond them confusion reigns.
WHAT IS A “CUT”?
While there are some 300 cuts of beef regularly marketed in this country, they can go by more than a thousand names assigned by private marketers or following regional traditions (e.g. New York Strip, Kansas City Strip). These names — some of them very impressive sounding — unfortunately have no official value other than their market equity.
To cut through this confusion of terms, each cut is also identified with a numbering system maintained by the USDA's Institutional Meat Purchase Specifications (IMPS) and the North American Meat Processors Association (NAMP). The numbers refer to standardized (100 series numbers) and portion (1,000 series numbers) primal cuts from the five broad areas that represent different sections of the carcass: the Chuck, the Rib, the Loin, the Round and the Brisket/Plate/Flank.
Visit www.fsis.usda.gov/factsheets for more information on the cuts.
From each of these sections, a variety of cuts can be taken. (In addition, there are a couple of value-added “cuts” like IMPS/NAMP #135-Diced Beef and IMPS/NAMP #135-Ground Beef that can be taken from multiple carcass sections, something that obviously affects quality and price.)
BY THE NUMBERS
For example, IMPS/NAMP #114 refers to the Beef Chuck, Shoulder Clod. This standardized cut, taken from the Chuck, the portion above the front shoulder of the carcass, can weigh more than 20 lbs. So it is further processed at either the supplier or operator level into meat that can be used in numerous applications ranging from pot roasts, stews and soups to stroganoff and shredded fillings for tacos and sandwiches.
On the other hand, a portion cut like the Beef Loin, Porterhouse Steak (IMPS/NAMP #1173) is a single portion cut from the Loin. Some portion cuts, like the IMPS/NAMP #1169-Beef Round Top (Inside) Round Steak, are often further processed into smaller pieces like cube steaks or beef strips (and also generally tenderized or marinated to help minimize their toughness).
In addition, each three- or four-digit category can be subdivided. For example, IMPS/NAMP $123-Beef Short Ribs can be further processed into #123A-Beef Short Rib Plate, Short Ribs, Trimmed; #123C-Beef Rib, Short Ribs; and #123D-Beef Short Ribs, Boneless.
The differences are technical, having to do with exactly what's included and what's been removed.
For instance #123A is the more general #123, except that it's derived from the 6th, 7th and 8th ribs of the short plate section (the #123 is a rib section from any rib and/or plate item containing between two and five ribs from ribs 6 through 10).
The best guide to these specifications is The Meat Buyers Guide, considered the bible of meat product knowledge (it includes information on not just beef but lamb, veal and pork as well, and is available in English and Spanish) from the North American Meat Processors Association. To find out more, go to www.namp.com.