Nothing invokes such a response to carnivores’ senses as the mention of the word “prime.” Whether it be related to real estate, time of life or a certain online shopping experience, prime is a term that connotates the best of the best. With respect to beef quality grades, we know it as the top, and quite possibly, the ultimate eating experience.
For years, Prime beef was known for its unique palatability traits, and for its rarity, with only about 2% to 3% of the beef supply qualifying for this grade. In recent years, that number has increased dramatically with about one out of every 10 beef carcasses in the United States being graded US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Prime. In the past, Prime beef was featured primarily in high-end restaurants and specialty meat markets. With Prime beef’s availability increasing three-fold, consumers have more purchase options than in the past, which is great news for those who love the taste of dining on richly flavored beef.
USDA beef grading standards were developed in the 1920s to allow purchasers to obtain more uniform quality meat. In 1944, L.B. Burk, a marketing specialist with USDA, wrote a history of meat grading that covered the first two decades of its evolution. He reported that Alvin H. Sanders of the Breeders Gazette believed that “beef from well fattened cattle of excellent conformation and quality, should be marketed as Blue Ribbon beef.” Blue Ribbon beef did not become an official grade, but by 1926 with the first official US Standards for Market Classes and Grades of Carcass Beef, we see the beginning of the Prime and Choice grades.
As one might expect, there were some disagreements between cattle producers who were for government grading and the packers who were initially against it. Packers at the time were quite comfortable with their own quality designations such as Swift Premium and Armour Star and were reluctant to embrace these “government grades.” Nevertheless, government grading and stamping service began on May 2, 1927, with the first grades being US Prime Steer, US Prime Heifer, US Choice Steer and US Choice Heifer. Later, because of the price discrimination against heifers, the packers urged USDA to drop the sex-class designation so that carcasses were simply US Prime or US Choice.
During World War II, USDA suspended the Prime grade pursuant to Amendment 5, Maximum Price Regulation 169 of the Office of Price Administration. All carcass beef and wholesale cuts that met the specifications of the “Prime” grade were identified with and graded as “Choice.”
In the 1965 revision of the USDA beef grading standards, carcasses were required to be ribbed to allow evaluation of marbling in the ribeye before grading. Up to that point, beef carcasses could be graded using other evidence of fatness. In the 1975 revision, requiring increasing marbling from the youngest to oldest classification in A maturity was eliminated, so that the minimum amount of marbling for Prime, Slightly Abundant, was the same throughout A maturity.
For almost half of the time the USDA beef grading standards have been around, the requirements for Prime beef have remained the same. For the youngest classification of beef, the marbling scores are Slightly Abundant, Moderately Abundant, Abundant and Very Abundant, descriptions that portray decadent levels of intramuscular fat interspersed in bright, cherry-red colored beef.
Once a beef carcass is graded Prime, all cuts from it are also considered Prime. Markets for the Prime-graded middle meats, cuts from the rib and loin, have been well established throughout the history of beef grading. The demand for Prime briskets exploded with the growth and popularity of Texas-style barbecue, which features oak-smoked beef brisket as its centerpiece. In 2017, an informal survey of Texas Monthly’s top ranked barbecue establishments found that nine out of the top 10 used Prime briskets.
Ribeyes, tenderloins, strip loins, top sirloin butts and briskets drive price premiums for Prime carcasses. On Aug. 2, 2021, USDA reported a premium for Prime of $16.68 per cwt, for about $150 more per 900-lb carcass. Premiums such as these have remained quite high even with the increasing amounts of Prime beef being available.
From a marbling standpoint, not all breeds are created equal. Breeds such as Angus have been selected for marbling ability with higher amounts of Type I, red muscle fiber types that require marbling for energy. Breeds such as Charolais and Limousin have been selected for growth and muscle with higher amounts of Type IIB, white muscle fiber types that require glycogen for energy.
With the growth in the number of Angus-based marketing programs led by Certified Angus Beef, there are simply more black-hided cattle coming to market today than in the past. In the National Beef Quality Audit – 2016 (NBQA–2016), over 58% of the cattle were black hided.
Another important contributor to the increased levels of Prime beef is from dairy cattle. The NBQA–2016 showed that dairy-type cattle produced 8% Prime carcasses, and that 32% of all Prime carcasses were classified as dairy type. Dairy cattle are known for their marbling ability, but without the 1975 revision to the USDA beef carcass grading standards, their contributions to the Prime grade would be limited. Before 1975, conformation (shape and muscle) was part of the grade standards. The quality of the carcass should have corresponding conformation to match. If not, the final quality grade was offset by the lack of conformation. Thus, for carcasses from dairy-type cattle, if the quality of the beef was Prime, but the conformation was Good (previous Select grade), the final USDA quality grade would be Choice. After 1975, marbling became the primary driver for quality grade, and if a carcass from young cattle (A maturity) had Slightly Abundant or greater marbling, it was graded Prime.
Cattle feeding throughout the United States and Canada allows for efficient conversion of grain to growth and development, especially during “finishing” when trying to achieve the appropriate carcass endpoint. Although most cattle are fed to meet the Choice market, improved genetics, abundant grain supplies, and best practices in cattle feeding all contribute to producing even more Prime than before.
It will be interesting to see if the production of Prime beef continues to grow, stay the same, or revert to its previous levels.