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Consumer Alert

Learning which meat makes the grade

If you’re planning on serving a roast this holiday season, cooking up some steaks, or making meatloaf, you might want to better understand sometimes confusing meat choices.

Those who can remember going to a local butcher know times have changed. Even if you have a friendly meat manager at your local grocery, it just isn’t the same.

But a handful of meat markets still exist that do things the old-fashioned way, offering freshly ground meat and top-graded beef. For the rest of us, it’s worthwhile to at least understand some of rules of the meat case.

Let’s start with the meat grading system.

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The US Department of Agriculture inspects cattle and assigns a grade based on the quality of the beef. The top grade is “Prime,” which is typically served in fine restaurants. The fat marbling in the meat, which specifically comes from “young, well-fed beef cattle,” is a key reason Prime steak tastes so much better.

A notch down is “Choice,” commonly found in supermarkets and less fine restaurants. Below that is “Select,” typically leaner, which usually means less juicy and flavorful.

Below those are “Standard” and “Commercial” grades, two designations you’re unlikely see on a package. If the meat is in those categories, the store most likely will leave it ungraded or make up a designation that sounds more appealing.

So, be wary of ungraded meat. And in restaurants, note the difference between “USDA Prime.” and “prime cut.” The first means something, the other doesn’t.

When it comes to ground beef, the butcher would take a piece of meat and run it through a grinder. But the vast majority of supermarkets receive huge tubes of already ground beef that is reground at the store so they can say “ground daily.” Seriously.

That “freshly ground beef” you get at the grocer is probably meat ground a while ago at a factory far away, then reground for appearance and labeling.

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An old butcher told me he didn’t think consumers understand what they are getting these days. Now, hopefully, more do.


Mitch Lipka has been helping consumers out of jams for the past two decades. He lives in Worcester and can be reached at consumernews@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @mitchlipka.