Guest post by Amber Pankonin of Stirlist.com
As a registered dietitian and culinary student, I often receive questions from readers about what consumers should look for when making purchasing decisions at the grocery store. I was recently asked about what to look for when shopping for beef. So, I reached out to CommonGround Nebraska to see if they could help answer a few of my questions.
I was introduced to Karol Swan, a CommonGround volunteer. Karol is now retired, but she worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as a meat grader for more than 30 years. If anybody knows anything about meat quality, it would definitely be Karol.
In order to help me better understand the process, Karol and I met with the meat department manager at Super Saver (48th & O Street location in Lincoln), and then traveled across town to meet with Fred Lowell, a butcher at Leon’s Gourmet Grocer.
After spending the day with Karol, I learned a lot about freshness. After beef is harvested at the processing facility, it travels to another holding facility before it’s shipped to the grocery store. After the meat is processed, it is available on the shelf within 30 days. I thought 30 days sounded like a long time, but Karol explained to me that beef needs time to age in order to have the best flavor and tenderness. According to the beef industry, 30 days of aging is extremely fresh.
The aging process is done in a controlled environment before the meat is shipped to the grocery store. Once it has arrived at the store and after it’s been cut into smaller portions, the meat is only allowed to sit for 30 hours before the price must be reduced. In fact, you can see what time it was cut by looking at the label. According to the meat manager at Super Saver, they never have a problem selling the product after the price has been reduced.
First of all, the labels that you see will depend on where you shop. If you shop at a store like Super Saver, you will see the time it was cut in addition to the unit price, weight, and total price. They do not include the grading labels because they do not want to mislabel or mislead the consumer. So, you can assume that if you shop at Super Saver, you will be getting choice or select grade of meat.
If you shop at a place like Leon’s, they cut the meat and display it in the meat case. There is no package until you’re ready to purchase. However, they display the grading labels on the case like “premium select” and price per pound. Since Karol is the expert on meat grading, I asked her to explain the different grades and what they mean.
Prime– This grade contains the most marbling, or fat, and is not found in the grocery store. According to the USDA, prime beef is from young, well-fed cattle. Prime cuts are typically sold in fine restaurants or hotels. The manager at Super Saver told me that prime is only about three to five percent of the beef market.
Choice– This grade is the majority of what you will see sold in grocery stores. This has less marbling than prime, but is still delicious and flavorful. The choice grade is then divided into different categories including small, moderate, and premium. When we visited Leon’s, the selection was mostly premium choice.
Select– This would be the leanest of the three grades and can still be tender even though it’s lean. However, it might not have as much flavor or juiciness because of the lower fat content.
USDA Inspected– You might see this label on a package of meat. Be assured that all beef sold in retail is USDA inspected.
Special thanks to Karol Swan and CommonGround Nebraska for the great information and for setting up this interview.