Beef wasn't always as popular as it is today. America has had cattle since the mid-1500s, but most immigrants preferred either pork or chicken. Shortages of those two meats during the Civil War, however, suddenly made beef attractive and very much in demand.
Meat packers can request and pay for their meat to be graded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The grading is based on three factors: conformation (the proportion of meat to bone), finish (proportion of fat to lean) and overall quality.
Beginning with the best quality, the eight USDA grades for beef are Prime, Choice, Select, Standard, Commercial, Utility, Cutter and Canner. The meat's grade is stamped within a purple shield (a harmless vegetable dye is used for the ink) at regular intervals on the outside of each carcass. USDA Prime and the last three grades are rarely seen in retail outlets. Of all beef carcasses offered for quality grading in the U.S., 2% are graded U.S. Prime, 44% U.S. Choice, 27% U.S. Select. The remainder, about 27%, are not quality graded, and may be referred to in the industry as "No Roll" carcasses.
Slaughterhouses can (but usually don't) request and pay for their pork to be graded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The grades are USDA 1, 2, 3, 4 and utility — from the best downwards — based on the proportion of lean to fat. Whether graded or not, all pork used for intrastate commerce is subjected to state or federal inspection for wholesomeness, insuring that the slaughter and processing of the animal was done under sanitary conditions. Pork shipped interstate must be federally inspected. Today's pork is leaner (about 1/3 fewer calories) and higher in protein than that consumed just 10 years ago.
The government grades chicken quality with USDA classifications A, B and C. The highest grade is A, and is generally what is found in markets. Grade B chickens are less meaty and well finished; grade C is usually reserved for scrawny turkeys. The grade stamp can be found within a shield on the package wrapping, or sometimes on a tag attached to the bird's wing. Chicken is available in markets throughout the year either fresh or frozen, and whole or cut into parts. The neck and giblets (liver, gizzard and heart) are either packaged separately and placed in a whole bird's body cavity, or sold individually. Choose a meaty, full-breasted chicken with plump, short legs. The skin — which can range from cream-colored to yellow, depending on the breed and the chicken's diet — should be smooth and soft. Avoid chickens with an off odor, or with skin that's bruised or torn.
Lamb is a sheep less than 1 year old, known for its tender meat. Baby lamb and spring lamb are both milk fed. Baby lamb is customarily slaughtered at between 6 and 8 weeks old. Spring lamb is usually 3 to 5 months old; regular lamb is slaughtered under a year of age. Lamb between 12 and 24 months is called yearling; when over 2 years, it's referred to as mutton and has a much stronger flavor and less tender flesh.
There are five USDA grades for lamb based on proportion of fat to lean. Beginning with the best, they are Prime, Choice, Good, Utility and Cull . When purchasing lamb, let color be the guide. In general, the darker the color, the older the animal. Baby lamb will be pale pink, while regular lamb is pinkish-red. Lamb can be purchased ground and in steaks, chops and roasts. Lamb variety meats can also be purchased.