Food & Drink

Why Prime beef is getting harder to find in grocery stores

Beef: It’s what’s for dinner. But first, sorting out the differences between Prime, Choice and other grades.
Beef: It’s what’s for dinner. But first, sorting out the differences between Prime, Choice and other grades. TNS

Spencer Tracy famously appraised Katharine Hepburn like this: “Not much meat on her, but what there is is cherce.”

That’s probably the most famous line from the 1952 comedy Pat and Mike. But I don’t want to talk about the movie, I want to talk about the meat being cherce — or choice, as you and I would pronounce it.

A recent caller was complaining about the quality of meat found in grocery stores these days. She almost never sees Prime meat anymore, she said, and it is even hard to find Choice. All she finds these days is Select and below.

The grading of beef can tell you a great deal about its quality. Prime is the best, but the grade is given to less than 2 percent of all beef cattle. Prime beef has the most marbling — the most bits of fat rippled throughout the meat, as opposed to the usual fatty areas — and fat is where the flavor is.

But there is more to it than just the marbling. U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors also look at the animal’s maturity (younger is better), which is determined not by its actual age — which would be hard to tell — but by other signs such as how rigid the bones have become and how narrow or wide the ribs are (narrower is better).

Other factors are considered, too, such as the amount of fat just under the skin, the weight of the animal just after it was killed, the amount of fat found in the kidney, pelvis and heart, and the size of the ribeye.

There is a lot more to it than that, involving a surprising amount of math. What is important to us as consumers is that most prime beef goes to restaurants, very little makes it to grocery stores, and that which does tends to be extremely expensive.

So as beef-loving cooks, the best we can usually do is to find meat that is graded Choice. If it’s good enough for Spencer Tracy, it’s good enough for me.

Choice beef is a lot more available than Prime and considerably more affordable, but, as the caller noted, it still can be hard to find in some major grocery stores. And with beef prices being what they are these days, affordability is relative.

Which brings us to Select. I recently bought a Select steak to use in a photo shoot. After we were done taking its picture, two photographers devoured the steak.

I had a small piece. If I may be immodest for a moment, it was perfectly cooked and seasoned. And yet it was one of the worst, toughest, most flavorless pieces of steak I have ever forced down my throat.

And that’s Select. There are still two other grades you can sometimes find in a supermarket, Standard and Commercial (don’t ask about Canner grade. You don’t want to know about Canner grade). But no one wants to buy a Standard or Commercial steak, so these grades are generally sold as the store’s house brand or offered without a grade.

That’s because the grading system is purely voluntary. The USDA does inspect all meat for its wholesomeness, which is paid for with government funds. But it is the meat producers themselves who ask for the meat to be graded, if they desire, and they pay for this service.

Does that mean you should avoid beef without a grade on it? Well, no, especially if that is what you can afford. And besides, Certified Angus Beef does not have a grade. What Certified Angus Beef has, for the most part, is marketing. It isn’t even a breed, it is just a brand.

To many people, the Angus breed makes the best-tasting beef. But a cow does not have to be purebred Angus to become Certified Angus Beef. It just has to be at least 51 percent black (black being the color of Angus cattle allowed to be registered in this country) and show other signs of being at least part Angus.

The cows then have to meet 10 criteria to be Certified Angus. They must have at least a modest amount of marbling (that’s the amount of marbling found in the better grades of Choice meat). They must be less than 30 months old, at least physiologically, and they must have a fatty layer less than 1-inch thick under the skin. In addition, the ribeye area has to be between 10 and 16 square inches.

In other words, it has at least a fair amount of meat, and what there is, is at least cherce.