The United States meat and poultry system is the most well developed and the most heavily regulated food production system in the world. The total cattle population in the US exceeds 90 million and spans a wide geographic range, with beef cattle being produced in all 50 US states.
The United States has the largest fed beef industry and is the largest volume producer of beef products worldwide. Each year the United States harvests over 30 million cattle to produce over 11 and a half million metric tons of beef for domestic and foreign markets. The beef supply chain functions synergistically to produce beef that is among the safest and highest quality in the world. US beef is best known for its superior flavor, tenderness, and juiciness, which is a result of harvesting young steers and heifers that have been fed a high quality grain-based finishing diet. Producing wholesome beef products begins with the production and management of live cattle utilizing exceptional animal health and animal handling practices. From the time that each calf is born to the time that it is harvested, many programs exist to ensure animal health and well-being with oversight from the United States Department of Agriculture, or USDA, and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, or APHIS.
US cattle production sectors include:
Growing stocking operations
Finishing or feedlot operations.
Seedstock producers maintain relatively small herds of beef animals with the goal of producing genetically superior bulls and females. In these operations, producers utilize selective breeding, both artificial and natural service, in planned mating scenarios to produce cattle for reproductive purposes.
The cow/calf sector serves as the starting point in the US beef industry supply chain and the primary source of steers and heifers for beef production. This segment of the beef industry requires large spans of land where cattle casually graze forages. The primary objective of cow/calf operations is to produce a single healthy calf from each cow every calendar year or every 12 months. Calves consume their mother's milk for the first five to seven months of their lives until they are weaned. Weaned calves graze native grass pastures and/or pastures with established improved grasses or immature cereal grain crops until they are ready to enter the finishing phase.
Growing or stocker operations function to transition weaned calves to the finishing phase. Following the growing phase, steers and heifers most commonly enter the finishing phase at less than one year of age and less than 450 kilograms of body weight. The vast majority of cattle are finished in specialized feeding facilities known as feedlots, where they receive a grain-based diet, predominantly corn and corn products, for 120 to 180 days, or until they reach a mature weight of 550 to 650 kilograms.
This grain finishing process contributes to the uniqueness of US beef products and their tenderness, juiciness, and flavor. Upon the completion of the finishing phase, young steers and heifers are transported directly to a harvest facility.
Feedlot cattle are most commonly transported to harvest facilities or packing plants using large trucks with a carrying capacity of 35 to 40 head of finished cattle. Upon arrival, cattle are unloaded at a casual pace to avoid animal excitement and injury. Following unloading, animals are held in pens with free access to water until antemortem inspection is performed by United States Department of Agriculture personnel. Antemortem inspection ensures that each animal is in good health and is fit for harvest.
In addition to inspection prior to death, USDA personnel inspect every animal for signs of illness, contamination, and any factor that may pose a threat to the safety of beef products and the cattle supply. This includes the inspection of all internal organs as well salable variety meats, including but not limited to tongues, heads, and livers. Additionally, every carcass is subjected to multiple food safety interventions such as hot water and organic acid rinses specifically aimed at eliminating harmful pathogenic bacteria.
All specified risk materials, or SRMs, are removed from each animal, including the removal of the spinal cord. The age of each animal is evaluated using dentition techniques by trained personnel. Animals that are identified as being 30 months of age or older are clearly marked with numerous designations. Animals designated as being 30 months of age or older are segregated throughout the remainder of the beef supply chain. This includes removing SRMs with designated equipment and processing these cattle at designated times of production to prevent mixing this product with other products designated for specified foreign markets.
For grading purposes and for identification of cattle fitting into breed-specific programs, the hide color of each animal is observed by trained personnel. Animals with a predominantly black hide color greater than 51% black are marked with the letter A to designate eligibility into Black Angus grade programs. This process is overseen by the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service, the government agency responsible for meat grading.
Immediately prior to chilling, the majority of steer and heifer carcasses in US production systems are subjected to electrical stimulation to enhance the eating characteristics of beef, namely tenderness. Split carcasses then enter large chilling coolers to be chilled in a 24 to 48-hour period prior to the grading process.
The first official United States standards for grades of carcass beef were approved under an act of congress in February of 1925, and voluntary beef grading services were offered by the United States government and USDA in May of 1927. The practice of beef grading has remained voluntary throughout its history, and the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946 requires the USDA to provide grading services to any group or company requesting it.
The grade standards have been adapted and amended numerous times over the years to accommodate the changes in the beef industry, and changes have been made to improve the meaningfulness and accuracy of USDA carcass grades. These changes have allowed federal beef rating to serve many functions, including, one, assistance to livestock producers identifying and receiving prices commensurate with the quality and quantity of the livestock they produce; two, a uniform supply of meat of the quality desired by consumers, retailers, institutions, and export markets; and three, to aid in the promotion and marketing of quality products.
The USDA grading system assists in the marketing of beef products that are uniform in quality and composition. USDA yield grades and US quality grades are routinely determined, assigned, and applied to carcasses concurrently. USDA yield grades serve as a numerical indication of the composition or the red meat yield of individual carcasses. USDA yield grades range in numerical value from 1.0 to 5.0 and are calculated using indications of carcass fatness and muscling. An increase in numerical value of a USDA yield grade indicates that the animal would yield a lower percentage of red meat or closely trimmed boneless retail cuts.
USDA yield grades serve as a valuable tool for the purchase of live cattle or carcass beef, but the differences in yield are not commonly noticed by those purchasing sub-primals of beef because fat trim is most commonly dictated by individual product specifications.
USDA quality grades serve as an indication of the expected eating experience of the carcass and the products resulting from it. The beef eating experience or the palatability of the product has been unanimously defined as the tenderness, juiciness, and flavor of the product. Therefore, USDA quality grade designations serve as the primary determinant of product value, and the quality grade designation is often maintained for all individual products resulting from each carcass. The maintenance of individual quality grade designations and the integrity of assigned USDA quality grades are ultimately important and are highly regulated. The USDA quality grade of a carcass is determined by evaluating carcass indicators for marbling, the amount of fat dispersed within the ribeye muscle at the 12th rib cross-section, physiological maturity, sex classification, and lean texture and firmness.
Physiological maturity serves as an indication of animal age and is determined by the amount of cartilage on the top of each chine bone in the vertebral column. As a beef animal matures, the tops of the chine bones in the vertebral column, also known as buttons, begin to calcify or ossify, serving as an excellent indication of physiological maturity. Even though eight quality grades exist for young and old cattle, only four quality grades are commonly applied to youthful A and B maturity beef animals. These include USDA Prime, Choice, Select, and Standard.
In addition to these four quality grades, beef carcasses can also be marketed in certified programs that not only indicate differences in quality grade and marbling score but may also differentiate carcasses into groups based on breed type, raising claims, and other carcass attributes. For youthful cattle, the amount of marbling is the most influential factor to determine the quality grade. It is well known that with increased levels of marbling and higher quality grades, there is a greater likelihood of a desirable eating experience.
The application of USDA yield and quality grades occurs following the completion of carcass chilling. Once the carcasses are completely chilled, they are presented for ribbing. Ribbing is the process of severing the vertebral column with a saw at a point that bisects the 12th thoracic vertebrae, followed by a single stroke through the ribeye muscle with a very sharp knife. Each carcass must be ribbed without flaws to be eligible for grading and grade application.
Following ribbing, the exposed surface of the ribeye is allowed ample time to bloom with exposure to oxygen, allowing for stabilized lean color development. Once the lean color of the ribeye is stabilized, carcasses are then presented to USDA meat graders for grade determination and application. USDA meat graders are highly trained personnel employed by the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service. USDA meat graders are not employed or compensated by producers or meat packing companies. Their services are provided to meat packing companies via a service charge paid by the packing companies to USDA.
USDA meat graders assess each carcass individually for yield and quality traits, and USDA grades are determined. Unique steel grade stamps that have been designed and developed by USDA are issued to individual meat graders, each grader maintains custody of his or her own set of grade stamps so that the integrity of grade stamps and grade designations is maintained.
USDA meat graders utilize edible purple ink with grade stamps to apply visible grade designations to each side of the beef carcass. Stamped carcass grades cannot be removed from the carcass unless permission to do so has been granted and witnessed by USDA meat graders. In the event that an individual carcass qualifies for a branded beef program by meeting certifiable specifications for that program, USDA meat graders serve as the certifying agency for branding and marketing claims and an additional accepted-as-specified certification stamp is applied.
These programs include, but are not limited to, age verification, raising and/or production claims, and breed-specific programs such as A40 determinations for animals that are less than 21 months of age, non-hormone treated cattle, and Angus-branded beef items. USDA-approved instruments can also be used to determine the USDA yield and quality grades for cattle. These highly advanced instruments utilize digital images of the ribeye and specialized computer software to measure yield and quality grading factors. Instrument grading provides a very objective and consistent method for determining USDA grades, and some research has shown that instrument grading contributes to an increased level of consistency in similarly graded products.
Even though instruments are able to determine USDA yield and quality grades for beef carcasses, they cannot operate without the supervision of USDA meat graders. Meat graders oversee the operation of these instruments, and even though the instruments are determining the grades, meat graders are still responsible for physically applying the grades to each carcass. In the event that the instrument is not functioning properly, or its assessment of an individual carcass is not accurate, meat graders overrule the decision of the instrument to maintain the accuracy of USDA grades.
Once USDA grades have been applied to individual carcass sides, carcasses are sorted into common groups to ensure that USDA quality grades and certification are maintained when carcasses are fabricated and individual products are distributed.
USDA quality grade designations for beef carcasses are transferred to the cuts resulting from each carcass. Maintaining the accuracy and integrity of the quality grade for each product is ultimately important. The USDA Agricultural Marketing service oversees the maintenance of quality grades for all products to ensure that what customers of US beef are intending to buy is what they truly receive.
USDA graders are responsible for oversight of beef quality grades from the time that the grades are applied to the carcass through fabrication, packaging, storage, and distribution. The maintenance and transfer of quality grades from the carcass to beef cuts begins by sorting and grouping similarly graded beef carcasses. These carcasses then enter the fabrication area as a group.
At this time the grades of each carcass are verified and carcass tags are removed. Prior to beginning fabrication for a group of similarly graded beef carcasses, the appropriate grade-specific product labels and packaging materials are put into place. This is achieved by removing the appropriate labels from a secure location and placing them in a location where they can be transferred to product boxes. The process of creating a physical break between the fabrication of different grades of carcasses and the exchange of labels and packaging materials is commonly referred to as a grade change.
Grade changes occur every time different grades of carcasses enter the fabrication area. USDA meat graders provide oversight for this process. Grade changes help to ensure that quality grades are transferred accurately and the integrity of the grade is maintained by removing the opportunity for mislabeling and misbranding of individual products.
During fabrication procedures, beef sides are fabricated into primals, including the chuck, brisket, rib, loin, and round. In this process, quality assurance personnel are actively checking individual product specifications to ensure that products are conforming to customer expectations. Additionally, the USDA Food Safety Inspection Service and food safety inspectors oversee the entire process.
In addition to the oversight of food safety during operation, the Food Safety Inspection Service provides the jurisdiction of label development and compliance, and serves as the enforcement authority for beef labeling laws. Not adhering to USDA labeling requirements by falsely labeling products, including labeling beef products with the incorrect USDA quality grade, is unlawful. Violating labeling laws is punishable by withdrawal of inspection, seizure, fines up to $10,000, written notice of warning of criminal or civil proceedings, and up to three years of imprisonment.
USDA quality grades, along with the product name, are printed on box labels. Additionally, most individual beef cuts are packed in vacuum-sealed bags that have the quality grade of the product printed on them. Each of these grade designations is overseen by the USDA Food Safety Inspection Service and the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service.
The USDA Audit, Review, and Compliance Branch has been assigned responsibility for reviewing and approving companies as eligible suppliers of meat and meat products under the USDA export verification programs. The export verification programs outline the specified product requirements for individual countries. Once an individual company is eligible for exporting specified products into individual countries, export certificates are issued b the Food Safety Inspection Service. The Food Safety Inspection Service export certificate validates the products as meeting regulatory guidelines for export.
Eligible suppliers must submit a list of all eligible product items intended for shipment to individual countries. All updates to the approved product list must be made in accordance with the export verification program updating approved product lists procedure.
Even though the USDA Food Safety Inspection Service and the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service both work together in beef processing facilities, they serve the beef industry and beef consumers in different roles. Purchasers and consumers of US beef products can be confident that the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, commonly referred to as FSIS, the public health agency in the USDA, ensure that beef products are safe, wholesome, and correctly labeled and packaged. Under the Federal Meat Inspection Act, FSIS inspects all raw beef sold in interstate and foreign commerce, including imported products. This includes the inspection of live cattle during the antemortem inspection procedures, monitoring animal handling, the inspection of visceral organs immediately following harvest, monitoring the compliance and adherence to food safety programs, specifically HACCP, and oversight of production practices and product labeling.
After beef is inspected for wholesomeness, producers and processors may request to have the products graded for quality by a licensed federal grader. USDA's Agricultural Marketing service is the agency responsible for grading beef and the oversight of product specifications. Those who request grading must pay for the service. USDA beef grades are based on the United States standards for carcass grades of beef. No matter where or when a consumer purchases graded beef, it must have met the same grade criteria. The grade is stamped on the carcass or side of beef and is usually not visible on retail cuts. However, retail packages of beef will show the US grade mark if they have been officially graded. According to the truth in labeling law, it is illegal to mislead or misrepresent the shield or wording.
It is the goal of US beef producers and the US beef industry to produce the safest, most wholesome and highest quality beef products in the world in the most responsible and sustainable fashion possible. This educational video was made possible with the support of beef checkoff dollars and the Colorado Beef Council, proudly representing the farming and ranching families of Colorado; the US Meat Export Federation; and Colorado State University.