In this issue of Salt Lake magazine, "Utah Table" is all about steak. (Well, and ice cream.) For the story, I talked to a number of local meat cutters and meat buyers for grocery stores—about marbling, grass-feeding, corn finishing and the USDA grading of meat.

Nevertheless, at the crucial moment I evidently had a brain cramp and wrote that Harmons sells only USDA Select grade beef and higher.


Harmons sells only USDA Choice grade beef and higher.

A fact which their marketing director was prompt to point out. Here’s why it’s so important.

Technically there are 8 grades of beef, all sorted by the maturity of the animal—how hard the bones are (softer in a younger animal) and how dark the meat is (darker in an older animal.)

But the most important factor in determining beef grade is the percentage of marbling, or intramuscular fat—not the fat around the muscle, but the fat that’s streaked inside it. Intramuscular fat and/or how often the steer used that particular muscle are what determine how tender a piece of meat. Beef is graded according to the amount of fat in the ribeye muscle between the 12th and 13th ribs.

There are three grades of Prime beef—the top grade has more than 11% marbling, or intramuscular fat.

There are three grades of Choice—the top grade has 7% to 8% marbling.

Then there is Select, the USDA grade formerly known as Good. It has 4% marbling..

The lowest grade, Standard, has no more than 3% marbling.

Americans have been carefully taught to avoid buying meat with visible fat. We also like to think we’re buying high quality. I suppose that’s why the USDA changed the name of Good grade to Select.

At any rate, the percentage numbers don’t sound all that far apart, but fine grocers don’t usually sell grades lower than Choice, because when it comes to flavor, the numbers make a huge difference.