I find this beef innovation particularly interesting and important – mostly because I enjoy a great, juicy steak and am glad I can rely on the grading system of beef to provide that!
From the beginning, beef was more about protein than pleasure and used as draft animals or for milk until they couldn’t be used anymore which would be used then for meat. But when did cattle become specific for beef protein and where did our grading quality system come from? Read below or for the full history by Alan Newport, click here.
Uniform Grading Set Parity, Reportability 100-year-old standards changed many times, but not much in the essence.
By Alan Newport
The first couple of hundred years in this country, beef was more about protein than pleasure.
Cattle were usually draft animals first, or milk cows. They became food when they quit producing, or sometimes when things got hard enough they began to look like roasts to their owners.
Eventually, however, we began to emulate our British cousins, who had begun early in the industrial revolution to produce real beef animals specifically for meat to feed the masses of workers in the industrialized cities.
So in 1902, Herbert Mumford at the University of Illinois wrote a series of bulletins he titled “Market Classes and Grades of Cattle with Suggestions for Interpreting Market Quotations.”
Mumford said there was a need for the public press to be able to report market conditions based on some uniform system. He also said such a system would aid beef cattle breeders in production and feeding efforts.
He laid out five market classes of cattle and the seven quality grades still partially intact: Prime, Choice, Select, Good, Medium, Common, Cutter and Canner.
Congress funded a study of uniform grades and market reporting in 1914, and in 1916 passed a law establishing the National Livestock Market News Service. That same year, USDA began developing its official grading system.
By 1923, the agency began publishing these standards, and by 1927, the grading system for beef cattle was made official by USDA as a voluntary, one-year trial program. After that, it was continued for several years on a voluntary, fee basis.
Grades for hogs and sheep were also being developed at this time but lagged behind beef cattle by up to five years.
Federal price-control programs during World War II made USDA grading of beef mandatory. The experience of smaller packers with this system was apparently a positive one, says a group of Texas A&M University animal scientists in their paper on the U.S. grading system.
“Regional and local packers discovered that by selling Prime, Choice and Good grade beef, they could compete with national packer ‘house grades,’ ” they wrote.
Soon, Congress authorized the mandatory grading of ag products through the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946.
The system evolved through several changes, including uniform descriptions for steer, heifer and cow beef; the elimination of fat color terminology; rolling Good grade into the Choice and Commercial grade categories; and a few other changes. One of those was the change of cutability grades to yield grades in 1973.
In 1975 several changes were made decreasing the importance of maturity in some quality grades, and conformation was eliminated from all quality grades. Some people say this was the time beef quality, as measured by marbling, was downgraded significantly.
In the Prime, Choice and Standard grades, the minimum marbling requirements for all such beef were revised to be the same as previously required for the very youngest beef in each of these grades. For the Good grade, the minimum marbling requirements for the very youngest beef were increased one-half degree.
In the Prime, Choice and Standard grades, this reduction was one full degree. Among other things, this meant a considerable amount of beef that was formerly Good became Choice.
Two more notable changes came in 1987 and 1989 when the quality grade Good was changed to Select, and when yield and quality grades were uncoupled.
In January 1997, the grading system was changed again to restrict the Select grade to A maturity only and to raise the marbling degree required for Choice to “minimum modest” throughout B maturity. USDA says the changes were made to improve the uniformity and consistency of Choice and Select beef.