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Beef Grades - Definition Of Terms

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

Any discussion of classes and grades of beef involves the use of numerous terms, the purpose of which is to describe the various factors and characteristics which determine and differentiate the various groups. Nearly everyone has a fair idea as to what he means by such terms as quality, finish, and con-formation, but these ideas vary widely. These variations in definitions of terms have led to endless confusion in the past, and precluded the establishment of a uniform or standard classification.

Hence, in the preparation of this bulletin, it has been deemed advisable to formulate at the outset definitions of a few of the terms which are used to designate the more important characteristics of beef. Variations of these characteristics are the basis of the classification hereinafter described. For the purposes of this system of classifying and grading, therefore, the following definitions are understood.


The term conformation covers the general build, form, shape, contour or outline of the carcass, side, or cut.

Best conformation involves: Short shanks and necks, deep plump rounds, thick full loins, well-fleshed ribs, and thickness of flank commensurate with the depth of barrel and chest cavity.

Poor conformation involves: Angularity in general outline, prominent hip and shoulder bones, long thin neck, shanks, and rounds, shallow loins, and a decided lack of symmetry in the carcass or side.

Conformation is dependent on the skeleton the depth of flesh and the thickness and distribution of external fat. Conformation is largely .a matter of breeding, although feed and care have an important influence.

Conformation' has much to do with determining the relative attractiveness of the carcass or side. Its chief significance lies in the fact that it indicates the ratio between meat and bone, also the ratio between the more desirable cuts, such as rounds and loins, and the so-called coarser cuts such as chucks and plates.


Finish refers to the thickness, color, character, and distribution of fat.

Best finish implies: A smooth, even covering of brittle, flaky, white fat over most of the exterior surface of the carcass, averaging not more than three-fourths inch thick over the top of the loin and ribs, and an even, though much thinner, covering of flaky white fat on the interior surface of the ribs; also heavy, but not excessive, "bunchy" or wasty deposits of white fat over the kidneys, in the crotch, and in the chest cavity. It also involves relatively heavy deposits of fat between the larger muscles, and a liberal distribution of fat along the connective tissues and between the muscle fibers. This latter characteristic gives the cut surface a streaked appearance and is known as marbling. Rounds, shanks, neck, and belly are the last portions of the anatomy to be covered with fat; hence, generally speaking, and with due regard for the maximum depth over the hips, loins, and rumps, the more extensive the distribution of fat over these surfaces the higher the finish.

Poor finish implies : Deficiency in external and internal fat and marbling; uneven distribution, resulting in bunches, rolls, or patches of fat on certain portions of the carcass; or that the fat is soft,, flabby, and yellow instead of firm, flaky, and white or creamy white.

The color, character, and evenness of distribution of fat are largely matters of breeding, but the quantity or thickness there-of is due to feeding and care.

A high degree of finish adds much to the attractiveness of a carcass or cut, but its chief significance lies in the fact that a certain amount of fat is essential to palatability. Furthermore, finish serves as an excellent index of the degree of quality of the meat.


Quality is a characteristic of the flesh and the fat included therein. It pertains primarily to the thickness, firmness, and strength of both the muscle fiber and the connective tissue. It also involves the amount, consistency, and character of the juices or extractives which surround and permeate the muscle fiber and connective tissue. It is strongly influenced by marbling, which is due simply to deposits of well-filled fat cells along the connective tissue and between the muscle fibers. Although, strictly speaking, color does not determine quality, it serves as an excellent index to quality.

Best quality in beef implies: Full, well-developed, firm muscular tissue or flesh with a minimum of strength in fibre and connective tissue. Beef of this sort possesses a high proportion of juice to dry fiber, but this moisture must be of such consistency that the flesh when chilled remains firm and resilient. There must also be liberal deposits of fat between the muscle fibers, giving the cut surface a streaked or marbled appearance. This fat, together with the juice or extractives, gives the meat juiciness and flavor. The cut surface of beef of this sort has fine grain, and is smooth and velvety to sight and touch. The color is a light or cherry red, because the blood supply has been kept at a minimum by lack of exercise and because of intensive feeding on grain or other ration producing similar effect, and because the animal was not old. The cut surface also presents a sheen or reflection not apparent in beef of poorer quality. This is due to the fine grain of the meat, the consistency of the juice, and the oil of the fat giving a smooth surface which reflects light much better than the relatively dry, or watery, coarse fiber of poorer quality beef.

Poor quality involves the opposite of most of the above characteristics. Beef of poor quality is usually of a dark red color, because the muscle has been subjected to prolonged, vigorous exercise and has therefore had a relatively large blood supply. For the same reasons the muscles are made up of strong, tough fibers and the connective tissues are comparatively thick and tendinous. Either the amount of juice is small or it is thin and watery. There is no marbling. As a result the meat is stringy, tough, and inferior in flavor. The ratio of muscle to connective tissue is relatively low, as is also the ratio of flesh to bone. The grain is coarse, and the general appearance is watery or fibrous.

Quality depends on a number of secondary factors. Breeding and feed are among the most important, but sex and age have an important bearing on the matter.

Quality determines the palatability of the meat and the ease with which it can be prepared for human consumption. Quality is, therefore, by all means, the most important factor in determining grade.

Determining quality is rather difficult, as quality pertains chiefly to the inner concealed parts of the carcass, examination of which requires more than superficial inspection.

To determine the quality exactly and absolutely it is necessary to have a cut surface, or cross section, exposed to view. But there is such close relationship between conformation, finish, and quality that the beef grader can nearly always count on a high degree of quality where the degree of the other two factors is high.

There are many other factors involved in grading beef and consequently many other terms used in describing and differentiating the various grades. It is believed, however, that these are all merely subdivisions of the three factors already named and described.

For example, age frequently has much to do with indicating the grade of a carcass, but age in itself has no bearing on the matter, except as it affects conformation, quality, and finish. In the same manner fat is always considered in grading meat, but fat is one of the elements which go to make up quality and finish, and naturally contributes to conformation. The same is true of such secondary factors as color, grain, marbling, thickness of flesh, and several other terms. All are either included as factors under one or another of the three main characteristics just described, or serve merely as accompaniments and, therefore, indexes of conformation, quality, or finish.

The system of grading outlined herewith is confirmed to beef which is sound and wholesome. Meat which is diseased, bruised, or partially decomposed is not subject to grading; that is, it is "off grade."

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