Making the Grade

All meat sold in this country needs a stamp from the United States Department of Agriculture, but the USDA is primarily concerned with safety, not taste. Processors have the option of paying for grading, also done by the USDA. Only 2 percent of American steaks are considered “prime,” a label that refers to highly marbled steaks with the most desirable flavors and tender texture. Forty-five percent of graded meats are deemed “choice,” which has good marbling though flavors are not as distinct and the meat not quite as tender. The leanest meats are called “select,” and though they have less fat and cost less, they also have weak flavor and are tougher than higher quality meats. Anything less distinctive than “select” — “utility,” “cutter” and “canner”— is used as filler in hotdogs, hamburgers and other commercially processed foods. You probably won’t find them in a supermarket, but if you do, leave them on the shelf.