Beef Choices

Labels. There's lots of them and that means a lot of choices. We've got everything you need to know to choose the right beef for you the next time you're faced with the decision.

decisions, decisions

You may be looking for a lean steak cut to use for a weeknight meal or the perfect holiday roast that will feed a crowd. Yet, there's so many labels and you may not be sure just what they all mean - from grass-finished vs. grain-finished, wondering what constitutes organic, or figuring out how a cut of meat gets that Prime sticker. 

Whatever the label question, we've got a breakdown of the basics to help you out the next time you're at the meat case. 

Beef Choices Fact Sheet

Reading labels:

Like the farmers and ranchers who choose how to best raise their cattle for beef, you have choices when it comes to the beef you buy. Cattle are raised responsibly and all beef is wholesome and nutritious - but you may see a variety of statements that reflect different production practices on beef packages in your grocery store or on a menu. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) approves these labels for beef based on specific criteria. Here's a few of the most common labels you'll see.

certified organic

Certified organic beef, designated by the official label, comes from cattle that have never received any antibiotics or growth-promoting hormones. These cattle may spend time at the feedyard and can be either grass-finished or grain-finished as long as the USDA's Agriculture Marketing Service certifies the feed as 100% organically grown.

naturally raised

Naturally raised beef comes from cattle that have never received antibiotics or growth-promoting hormones. This beef may spend time at a feedyard and can be either grain-finished or grass-finished. 


Antibiotic-free, or raised without antibiotics. Cattle in these programs are certified to have never been given antibiotics. But there's more to the story: By law, no meat sold in the U.S. can contain antibiotic residues and the FDA is in charge of testing to ensure that all meat is residue-free.

Grass and Grain diets:

You've likely seen various labels showing that beef is "natural" or "grass-fed." But what do these labels mean? All cattle spend a majority of their lives eating grass on pastures. But beef can be finished in a variety of ways, giving you choices when at the meat case or a restaurant.

grass-fed beef

Great news: all cattle are grass-fed for most of their lives. 

grass-finished beef

Grass-finished cattle spend their entire lives grazing and eating from pastures. These cattle may also eat forage, hay, or silage at the feedyard. Additionally, grass-finished cattle may or may not be given FDA-approved antibiotics to treat, prevent, or control disease and/or growth-promoting hormones. 

grain-finished beef

Grain-finished cattle, like grass-finished, spend the majority of their lives eating grass and forage in pastures. When beef is grass-finished, cattle are free to eat a balanced diet of grain, local feed ingredients (like potato peels), and hay or forage at the feedyard. Similarly, grain-finished cattle may or may not be given FDA-approved antibiotics to treat, prevent, or control disease and/or growth-promoting hormones. 

beef grades:

Beef grading sets the standards for the various quality levels of beef. The beef grading program uses highly trained specialists and sometimes grading instruments to determine the official quality grade. Beef quality grading is voluntary, administered by the USDA, and paid for by beef packers. The grade is primarily determined by the degree of marbling - the small flecks of fat within the beef muscle. Marbling provides flavor, tenderness, and juiciness to beef and improves overall palatability. Other grading factors include animal age and the color and texture of the muscle. 


Prime beef is produced from young, well-fed cattle. It has abundant marbling, is produced in smaller quantities than other grades, and is often sold in hotels and restaurants. Prime roasts and steaks are excellent for roasting, grilling, or broiling. 


Choice beef is high-quality and produced in highest quantity, but has less marbling than Prime. Choice roasts and steaks, especially from the rib and loin, will be very tender, juicy, and flavorful. They are suited for roasting, grilling, and broiling. Less tender cuts are perfect for slow-cooking.


Select beef is slightly leaner than Prime and Choice because it has less marbling. It can lack some tenderness, flavor, and juiciness as compared to the higher grades. Select grade beef often benefits from slow-cooking or from marination prior to grilling or broiling.