A Certified Shame

The Sad State of the American Steak

The American steak ain't what it used to be. Ten years ago, no fancy steak house worth its salt would consider serving anything less than USDA Prime beef. But that was a long time ago. USDA Prime is becoming a rarity in restaurants these days. The problem isn't that steak houses have changed their standards, the problem is that the USDA has.

Declining beef sales and declining beef prices sparked by a national hysteria for low-fat food forced the cattle industry to reevaluate their standards of quality. In 1987, as a result of the National Consumer Retail Beef Study conducted by Texas A&M University, the USDA changed the entire focus of cattle grading. In response to customer preferences for leaner beef, USDA Good, the third class of beef under Prime and Choice, was relabeled "USDA Select." And things haven't been the same since.

"The beef industry has started feeding cattle differently in order to produce leaner beef," Molly Patterson of the Texas Beef Council told me. "As a result, the production of USDA Prime is down. The grading system has also been changed because the highest level of USDA Prime isn't even produced anymore."

"American beef is 27% leaner today than it was 20 years ago," Patterson told me. The cattle producers are giving American consumers exactly what they're asking for -- low-grade beef. Only we don't call it low-grade beef anymore, we call it lean beef and we've changed the entire USDA grading system to reflect this new thinking.

Once upon a time, the major difference from one category of beef to the next was the degree of marbling (intramuscular fat) in the meat; Prime was roughly 15% more marbled than Choice, and Choice was about 15% more marbled than Good. Now that the average American consumer has become so paranoid about fat, we have changed the name of our lowest grade of beef from "Good" to "Select." In the topsy-turvy logic of today's health consciousness, Americans are paying a premium for poorer quality beef. Cattlemen, in turn, are being pushed to produce more of it and the result is a drastic decline in beef quality. In 1986, 94% of all cattle graded rated Choice and 3.1% made Prime. By 1995, only 47% of all cattle graded made Choice and only 1.3% made Prime.

Most of what's left of our best beef is sold to people who appreciate it more than we do. Eighty percent of USDA Prime is now exported, a large part of it going to Japan. The Japanese, whose rice-and-seafood diet has long been held up as the paragon of healthy eating, are no fools when it comes to beef. The Japanese pay top dollar for our well-marbled beef. In quality-conscious Japan, they want the best of whatever they eat. And as any chef will tell you, the more marbling in the steak, the better the flavor.

"You can read the whole history of the cattle in the way the beef is marbled," says Coyote Cafe chef Mark Miller. If it's just fat around the edge of the steak, the animal was fattened up at the end of its life and it's going to be lower quality. But if the marbling runs all the way through the steak, the animal was well-fed from the beginning and you're going to have a great steak. You should see the Japanese Kobe beef, it's got the most marbling I've ever seen."

In order to guarantee their supply of well-marbled USDA Prime beef, the Japanese and other large customers have to order it in advance so the cattle can be specially fed. "Ruth's Chris buys their USDA Prime while it's still at the feedlot," says Bill Andrews, manager of the Austin Ruth's Chris. "Then if the meat packers have any left over, they'll sell it to you or somebody else. There's not a grocery store or a small restaurant in the country that can get USDA Prime week in and week out." Even Ruth's Chris, which serves mostly USDA Prime steaks, can't get Prime filet anymore, Andrews says. And other Austin restaurants have found themselves in similar circumstances.

"Right now we have a USDA Prime ribeye on the menu," says chef David Garrido of Jeffrey's. "But finding a steady source of USDA Prime beef has been difficult." Beyond the problems of a steady supply, chefs also have to deal with the attitudes of many of their patrons towards well-marbled meat.

"People freak out if they see the least bit of fat on their steaks," says Robert Del Grande of Cafe Annie in Houston. They don't even want to see the circle of fat in the middle of a good rib eye." Despite their sure knowledge of what makes a great steak, chefs are bowing to their customers' preferences for ever-leaner beef. And that makes paying a premium for well-marbled prime harder and harder to justify.

Besides, American prime beef these days is not what it used to be. "They have lowered the standards on USDA Prime twice in the last 20 years," observes Rick Cheesman of Sullivan's Steak House in Austin. "You can't even get USDA Prime tenderloin anymore. All the Prime tenderloin is left attached to the bone and cut into porterhouse steaks." Cheesman, who once worked at Bern's Steakhouse in Tampa, one of the top steakhouses in the country, doesn't serve USDA Prime at Sullivan's. Like many restaurants these days, he relies on the Certified Angus branded-beef program for good beef at a fair price.

"The Certified Angus program is the most successful branded-beef program in the country," says Patterson. But branded beef is causing a fair share of confusion among beef eaters. There's not only Select, Choice, and Prime in grocery stores and restaurants these days, there's also Certified Angus, Coleman, Sterling Silver, and other new names to choose from. On the surface, the Certified Angus brand sounds a little silly. Why should we choose our beef based on what breed of cattle it comes from? But in truth, there's a lot more to brand-name beef than meets the eye. To understand what's really going on, you have to take a look behind the scenes of the beef-grading business. Within the extremely broad category of USDA Choice, there are actually three different levels of quality. They are usually called "small marbling, modest marbling, and moderate marbling." Moderately marbled USDA Choice is the top of the heap, just one step short of Prime.

"The Certified Angus program goes beyond government grading," says Patterson. "After the USDA issues a grade, an Angus grader comes through and stamps the meat that fits their program. What they are taking is, by and large, the top level of USDA Choice."

The branded-beef programs are profiting from the fact that the USDA Choice category is too broad. As USDA Prime has become unaffordable or even unavailable, the new branded beef programs are offering restaurants and grocery stores the only other guarantee of quality. Unless our low-fat hysteria suddenly subsides, the quality of American beef will continue to fall and USDA Prime will become more and more difficult to find. Meanwhile, quality-conscious consumers are stuck with branded beef. Certified Angus steaks are a sad substitute for the kind of well-aged, marbled steaks we used to eat in America. But what else can you do when your Prime is a thing of the past and your Choice has become meaningless? Robb Walsh writes a food column for Natural History Magazine, and received a 1996 James Beard Journalism Award.

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