One of the myths that Taco Bell has had to contend with is that its meat filling contains ‘Grade D beef.’ It doesn’t. But it struck me that most of the people who believe this myth probably have no idea what grade D beef is. At the grocery store, we see USDA Prime, Choice, and Select. We don’t see grade D. Why is that?
There are No Letter Grades for Beef
The reason you don’t see Grade D meat at the grocery store is not that they refuse to sell it. It’s because it doesn’t exist. There is no such thing as grade D beef or grade D meat. In fact, there are no letter grades for beef at all.
Keep in mind that the inspection of beef by the USDA is mandatory and paid for out of tax dollars. But beef grading for quality is voluntary. Beef (and poultry) producers must pay out of pocket for this grading and the subsequent quality seal that it earns.
USDA quality inspectors use a combination of qualitative assessment and electronic measurements to grade beef based on the official grade standards. In terms of quality, beef is graded for the amount of marbling, tenderness, juiciness and flavor. Beef is also given yield grades reflecting the amount of usable lean meat on a carcass.
The best quality beef is USDA Prime. The second highest quality is Choice. And, the third is Select. The age of the cattle absolutely affects the grading with Prime beef coming from younger cattle. Of course, how well the cattle are fed makes a difference in marbling and flavor.
Prime beef has the most marbling and it the most tender and juicy. It will have at least slightly abundant marbling to moderately abundant marbling.
Choice is still well-marbled and tender. It has less marbling than Prime but at least a small amount.
Select is leaner than the higher grades but uniform in quality. It can still be a tender cut of beef but will be less juicy and flavorful than the higher grades.
Below USDA select are Utility, Cutter, and Canner grades. You won’t see these sold at the butcher section or served in restaurants. They are used for ground beef, processed products, and pet food.
I do not know what grade of beef Taco Bell uses in its meat filling. They announced in 2012 that they would stop using finely textured lean beef trimming (BLBT). But, it is doubtful that taco bell uses prime, choice, or select beef for its ground meat mixture, which also contains added ingredients as well as spices and flavorings. There is probably a qualitative difference in a taco filling made with BLBT and one made with ground beef but any subjective difference between one grade of beef and another may well be lost at the end of the processing stages.
Regardless, beef quality grading is not a reference to wholesomeness. That is, quality grading doesn’t really mean the beef is better for you or safer. It is a reference to the subjective experience that one is likely to encounter when cooking and eating. Once it is ground up, cooked, drained of fat, sits around all day, etc. much of this experience would be lost. In other words, if taco bell spent more money on a higher grade of beef, this higher quality experience would be lost to the consumer who would have to pay much more for virtually the same experience. No more late-night Taco Bell feasts!
You probably do not buy expensive USDA Prime beef for your taco night, either. That is if you are using ground beef. You probably buy regular ground beef, ground chuck, etc. and this ground beef will not be made with a higher grade of beef. And, your tacos are more expensive than a Taco Bell taco, I assure you. If you like Taco Bell, there is no reason to fear that the beef is somehow bad for you.