One question that comes up periodically in the US is how important it is to buy beef that carries a label stating that the beef is “USDA certified” or “USDA Grade A”. This can cause substantial confusion because people think they are getting something that they aren’t getting.
The USDA, United States Department of Agriculture, oversees all agricultural products produced by the US. However, there are limits to what it does and what it can do. This is easy to understand when you consider the fact that about 94 to 95 million beef cattle are raised in the US every year. Economically and logistically, it simply isn’t possible to test every steer.
When testing is done, and this isn’t common to have happen, the testing is done on a random sample. Far less than 1% of cattle are tested unless there is a strong specific reason for testing a particular herd. This includes testing for diseases.
Furthermore, the USDA has no way to test the quality of the meat, even in a small sample. This means that beef that carries a “USDA Grade A” label isn’t honestly any better than beef that doesn’t carry such a label. Indeed, the USDA doesn’t grade meat and it would again be economically and logistically infeasible for them to grade even a third of the beef produced in the USA each year. It would be ludicrous to think that the USDA could grade every single cut that came from over 30 million beef, even if there was a means to do so.
Despite all of this, people in the US are much more apt to purchase a USDA Grade A steak or roast than they are to purchase one that doesn’t carry the label. That is the sole value of having a USDA certification for beef; it sells better. Other than that, ‘USDA certified’ or ‘USDA Grade A’ has no meaning. The USDA doesn’t endorse any particular product.
The Department of Agriculture can do one thing that is important, though. By doing a random sampling, they can determine which herds are strictly grain-fed, which are fed hay, and which are pastured. However, even this is hit and miss, as USDA inspectors can’t be everywhere all the time.