Beef From Farm to Table
- What is beef?
- How are cattle raised?
- Can hormones and antibiotics be used in cattle raising?
- How is beef inspected?
- What is the “USDA Certified Tender” and “USDA Certified Very Tender” program?
- How is ungraded beef different?
- What is marbling?
- Retail Cuts of Fresh Beef
- How much beef is consumed?
- Nutrition Labeling
- What does “natural” mean?
- How and why is some beef aged?
- Why is beef called a “red”meat?
- Color of Beef
- Iridescent Color of Roast Beef
- Dating of Beef Products
- What foodborne organisms are associated with beef?
- Rinsing Beef
- How to Handle Beef Safely
- Safe Defrosting
- Partial Cooking
- Liquid in Package
- Safe Cooking
- Home Storage of Beef Products
Over the past 100 years, Americans have been eating an average of 56 pounds of beef yearly. About 33 million cattle are inspected yearly by USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service. In 2012, this translated into more than 54.5 pounds of beef per person. In calls to the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline, beef is the second food category (behind turkey) callers most ask about. The following information answers many of their questions about the safe handling, preparation, cooking and storage of beef.
What is beef?
The domestication of cattle for food dates to about 6500 B.C. in the Middle East. Cattle were not native to America, but brought to the New World on ships by European colonists. Americans weren't big eaters of fresh beef until about 1870, due to the enormous growth of the cattle industry in the West. The introduction of cattle cars and refrigerated cars on the railroad facilitated distribution of the beef.
"Beef" is meat from full-grown cattle about 2 years old. A live steer weighs about 1,000 pounds and yields about 450 pounds of edible meat. There are at least 50 breeds of beef cattle, but fewer than 10 make up most cattle produced. Some major breeds are Angus, Hereford, Charolais and Brahman.
"Baby beef" and "calf" are two interchangeable terms used to describe young cattle weighing about 700 pounds that have been raised mainly on milk and grass. The meat cuts from baby beef are smaller; the meat is light red and contains less fat than beef. The fat may have a yellow tint due to the vitamin A in grass.
"Veal" is meat from a calf which weighs about 150 pounds. Those that are mainly milk-fed usually are less than 3 months old. The difference between "veal" and "calf" is based on the color of their meat, which is determined almost entirely by diet. Veal is pale pink and contains more cholesterol than beef.
NOTE: This information is about whole muscle beef and variety beef. See "Ground Beef and Food Safety" for information about hamburger and ground beef.
How are cattle raised?
All cattle start out eating grass; three-fourths of them are "finished" (grown to maturity) in feedlots where they are fed specially formulated feed based on corn or other grains.
Can hormones and antibiotics be used in cattle raising?
Antibiotics may be given to prevent or treat disease in cattle. A "withdrawal" period is required from the time antibiotics are administered until it is legal to slaughter the animal. This allows antibiotic residues to exit the animal's system. FSIS randomly samples cattle at slaughter and tests for residues. Data from this monitoring plan have shown a very low percentage of residue violations. Not all antibiotics are approved for use in all classes of cattle. However, if there is a demonstrated therapeutic need, a veterinarian may prescribe an antibiotic that is approved in other classes for an animal in a non-approved class. In this case, no detectable residues of this drug may be present in the edible tissues of the animal at slaughter.
Hormones may be used to promote efficient growth. Estradiol, progesterone, and testosterone (three natural hormones), and zeranol and trenbolone acetate (two synthetic hormones) may be used as an implant on the animal's ear. The hormone is time released and is effective for 90 to 120 days. In addition, melengesterol acetate, which can be used to suppress estrus, or improve weight gain and feed efficiency, is approved for use as a feed additive. Not all combinations of hormones are approved for use in all classes of cattle. Hormones are approved for specific classes of animals, and cannot be used in non-approved classes.
How is beef inspected?
Inspection is mandatory; grading is voluntary, and a plant pays to have its meat graded. USDA-graded beef sold at the retail level is Prime, Choice and Select. Lower grades (Standard, Commercial, Utility, Cutter and Canner) are mainly ground or used in processed meat products. Retail stores may use other terms which must be different from USDA grades.
USDA Prime beef (about 2% of graded beef) has more fat marbling, so it is the most tender and flavorful. However, it is higher in fat content. Most of the graded beef sold in supermarkets is USDA Choice or USDA Select. The protein, vitamin and mineral content of beef are similar regardless of the grade.
What is the “USDA Certified Tender” and “USDA Certified Very Tender” program?
In connection with the USDA Beef Carcass Quality Grading Program under the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) and grades such as USDA Prime, Choice and Select, this program provides retailers with a new tool to help their customers identify what specific cuts of beef are consistently tender or very tender.
Companies wishing to use this designation must meet the International tenderness standard and be reviewed by AMS’ Livestock and Poultry Program prior to final use by the approved program. Once the program has been approved, label claims for "USDA Tender" or "USDA Very Tender" must also be approved by USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), Office of Policy and Program Development (OPPD), and Labeling and Program Delivery Division (LPDD). For more information, go to www.ams.usda.gov/services/auditing/tender
How is ungraded beef different?
All beef is inspected for wholesomeness. The overall quality of ungraded beef may be higher or lower than most government grades found in retail markets.
What is marbling?
Marbling is white flecks of fat within the meat muscle. The greater amount of marbling in beef, the higher the grade because marbling makes beef more tender, flavorful and juicy.
Retail Cuts of Fresh Beef
There are four basic major (primal) cuts into which beef is separated: chuck, loin, rib and round. It is recommended that packages of fresh beef purchased in the supermarket be labeled with the primal cut as well as the product, such as "chuck roast" or "round steak." This helps consumers know what type of heat is best for cooking the product. Generally, chuck and round are less tender and require moist heat such as braising; loin and rib can be cooked by dry heat methods such as broiling or grilling.
Unfortunately, names for various cuts can vary regionally in stores, causing confusion over the choice of cooking method. For example, a boneless top loin steak is variously called: strip steak, Kansas City Steak, N.Y. strip steak, hotel cut strip steak, ambassador steak or club sirloin steak.
Figures from the USDA's Economic Research Service show average annual per capita beef consumption for the following selected periods:
|How Much Beef is Consumed?
Nutrition claims such as "lean" and "extra lean" are sometimes seen on beef products. Here are their definitions:
"Lean" - 100 grams of beef with less than 10 grams of fat, 4.5 grams or less of saturated fat, and less than 95 milligrams of cholesterol.
"Extra Lean" - 100 grams of beef with less than 5 grams of fat, less than 2 grams of saturated fat, and less than 95 milligrams of cholesterol.
What does "natural" mean?
All fresh meat qualifies as "natural." Products labeled "natural" cannot contain any artificial flavor or flavoring, coloring ingredient, chemical preservative, or any other artificial or synthetic ingredient; and the product and its ingredients are not more than minimally processed (ground, for example). All products claiming to be natural should be accompanied by a brief statement which explains what is meant by the term "natural."
Some companies promote their beef as "natural" because they claim their cattle weren't exposed to antibiotics or hormones and were totally raised on a range instead of being "finished" in a feedlot.
How and why is some beef aged?
Beef is aged to develop additional tenderness and flavor. It is done commercially under controlled temperatures and humidity. Since aging can take from 10 days to 6 weeks, USDA does not recommend aging beef in a home refrigerator.
Why is beef called a "red" meat?
Oxygen is delivered to muscles by the red cells in the blood. One of the proteins in meat, myoglobin, holds the oxygen in the muscle. The amount of myoglobin in animal muscles determines the color of meat. Beef is called a "red" meat because it contains more myoglobin than chicken or fish. Other "red" meats are veal, lamb and pork.
Color of Beef
Beef muscle meat not exposed to oxygen, (in vacuum packaging, for example) is a burgundy or purplish color. After exposure to the air for 15 minutes or so, the myoglobin receives oxygen and the meat turns bright, cherry red.
After beef has been refrigerated about 5 days, it may turn brown due to chemical changes in the myoglobin. Beef that has turned brown during extended storage may be spoiled, have an off-odor and be tacky to the touch.
Iridescent Color of Roast Beef
Sliced cooked beef or lunch meat can have an iridescent color. Meat contains iron, fat and many other compounds. When light hits a slice of meat, it splits into colors like a rainbow. There are also various pigments in meat compounds which can give it an iridescent or greenish cast when exposed to heat and processing. Iridescent beef isn't spoiled necessarily. Spoiled cooked beef would probably also be slimy or sticky and have an off-odor.
Additives are not allowed on fresh beef. If beef is processed, additives such as MSG, salt or sodium erythorbate must be listed on the label.
Dating of Beef Products
Product dating is not required by Federal regulations. However, many stores and processors may voluntarily date packages of raw beef or processed beef products. If a calendar date is shown, there must be a phrase explaining the meaning of the date.
Use or freeze products with a "Sell-By" date within 3 to 5 days of purchase.
If the manufacturer has determined a "Use-By" date, observe it. This is a quality assurance date after which peak quality begins to lessen but the product may still be used. It's always best to buy a product before its date expires. It's not important if a date expires after freezing beef because all foods stay safe while properly frozen.
What foodborne organisms are associated with beef?
Escherichia coli can colonize in the intestines of animals, which could contaminate muscle meat at slaughter. E. coli O157:H7 is a rare strain that produces large quantities of a potent toxin that forms in and causes severe damage to the lining of the intestine. The disease produced by it is called hemorrhagic colitis and is characterized by bloody diarrhea. E. coli O157:H7 is easily destroyed by thorough cooking.
Salmonella may be found in the intestinal tracts of livestock, poultry, dogs, cats and other warm-blooded animals. There are about 2,000 Salmonella bacterial species. Freezing doesn't kill this microorganism, but it is destroyed by thorough cooking. Salmonella must be eaten to cause illness and cannot enter the body through a skin cut. Cross-contamination can occur if raw meat or its juices contact cooked food or foods that will be eaten raw, such as salad.
Staphylococcus aureus can be carried on human hands, nasal passages or throats. Most foodborne illness outbreaks are a result of contamination from food handlers and production of a heat-stable toxin in the food. Sanitary food handling and proper cooking and refrigerating should prevent staphylococcal foodborne illness.
Listeria monocytogenes is destroyed by cooking, but a cooked product can be recontaminated by poor handling practices and poor sanitation. FSIS has a zero tolerance for Listeria monocytogenes in cooked and ready-to-eat products such as beef franks or lunchmeat. Observe handling information such as "Keep Refrigerated" and "Use-By" dates on labels.
It isn't necessary to wash raw beef before cooking it. Any bacteria which might be present on the surface would be destroyed by cooking.
How to Handle Beef Safely
- Raw Beef: Select beef just before checking out at the register. Put packages of raw beef in disposable plastic bags, if available, to contain any leakage which could cross-contaminate cooked foods or produce. Beef, a perishable product, is kept cold during store distribution to retard the growth of bacteria.
Take beef home immediately and refrigerate it at 40°F (4.4°C); use within 3 to 5 days—1 or 2 days for ground beef and variety meats, such as liver, kidneys, tripe, sweetbreads or tongue—or at freeze at 0°F (-17.8°C). If kept frozen continuously, it will be safe indefinitely.
It is safe to freeze beef in its original packaging or repackage it. However, for long-term freezing, overwrap the porous store plastic with aluminum foil, freezer paper, or freezer-weight plastic wrap or bags to prevent "freezer burn," which appears as grayish-brown leathery spots and is caused by air reaching the surface of food. Cut freezer-burned portions away either before or after cooking the beef. Heavily freezer-burned products may have to be discarded for quality reasons. For best quality, use steaks and roasts within 9 to 12 months.
- Ready-Prepared Beef: For fully cooked, take-out beef dishes such as Chinese food, barbecued ribs or fast food hamburgers, be sure they are hot at pickup. Use cooked beef within 2 hours—1 hour if the air temperature is above 90°F (32.2°C) or refrigerate it at 40°F (4.4°C) in shallow, covered containers. Eat within 3 to 4 days, either cold or reheated to 165°F (73.9°C) — hot and steaming. It is safe to freeze ready-prepared beef dishes. For best quality, use within 4 months.
There are three safe ways to defrost beef: in the refrigerator, in cold water and in the microwave. Never defrost on the counter or in other locations.
- Refrigerator: It's best to plan ahead for slow, safe thawing in the refrigerator. Ground beef, stew meat and steaks may defrost within a day. Bone-in parts and whole roasts may take 2 days or longer. Once the raw beef defrosts, it will be safe in the refrigerator for 3 to 5 days before cooking. During this time, if you decide not to use the beef, you can safely refreeze it without cooking it first.
- Cold Water: To defrost beef in cold water, do not remove packaging. Be sure the package is airtight or put it into a leakproof bag. Submerge the beef in cold water, changing the water every 30 minutes so that it continues to thaw. Small packages of beef may defrost in an hour or less; a 3- to 4-pound roast may take 2 to 3 hours.
- Microwave: When microwave defrosting beef, plan to cook it immediately after thawing because some areas of the food may become warm and begin to cook during microwaving. Holding partially-cooked food is not recommended because any bacteria present wouldn't have been destroyed.
Foods defrosted in the microwave or by the cold-water method should be cooked before refreezing because they may have been held at temperatures above 40°F (4.4°C).
It is safe to cook frozen beef in the oven, on the stove or grill without defrosting it first; the cooking time may be about 50% longer. Do not cook frozen beef in a slow cooker.
Marinate beef in the refrigerator up to 5 days. Boil used marinade before brushing on cooked beef. Discard any uncooked leftover marinade.
Never brown or partially cook beef to refrigerate and finish cooking later because any bacteria present wouldn't have been destroyed. It is safe to partially pre-cook or microwave beef immediately before transferring it to the hot grill to finish cooking.
Liquid in Package
Many people think the red liquid in packaged fresh beef is blood. However, blood is removed from beef during slaughter and only a small amount remains within the muscle tissue. Since beef is about 3/4 water, this natural moisture combined with protein is the source of the liquid in the package.
For safety, the USDA recommends cooking hamburgers and ground beef mixtures such as meat loaf to 160°F (71.1°C) as measured with a food thermometer. Cook all organ and variety meats (such as heart, kidney, liver and tongue) to 160°F (71.1°C).
Cook all raw beef steaks and roasts to a minimum internal temperature of 145°F (62.8°C) as measured with a food thermometer before removing meat from the heat source. For safety and quality, allow meat to rest for at least three minutes before carving or consuming. For reasons of personal preference, consumers may choose to cook meat to higher temperatures.
For approximate cooking times for use in meal planning, see the following chart compiled from various resources. Times are based on beef at refrigerator temperature — 40°F (4.4°C). Remember that appliances and outdoor grills can vary in heat. Use a food thermometer to check for safe cooking and doneness of beef.
|Approximate Beef Cooking Times °F
325°F (162.8°C); 425°F (218.3°C )
|Type of Beef
|Rib Roast, Bone in
|4 to 6 lbs.
|145°F (62.8°C) and allow to rest at least 3 minutes
|Rib Roast, Boneless Rolled
|4 to 6 lbs.
|Add 5-8 min./lb. to times above
|Chuck Roast, Brisket
|3 to 4 lbs.
|1 1/2 to 2 1/2 hours
|Round or Rump Roast
|2 1/2 to 4 lbs.
|4 to 6 lbs.
|45-60 min. total
|4-5 min. per side
|1 to 1 1/2" thick
|Cover with liquid; simmer
|2 to 3 hours
|4" long and 2" thick
|*Braise 325 °F
|1 1/2 to 2 1/2 hours
|Hamburger Patties, Fresh
|Grill, broil or fry
|3 to 5 minutes per side
- When microwaving unequal size pieces of beef, arrange in dish or on rack so thick parts are toward the outside of dish and thin parts are in the center; cook on medium-high or medium power.
- Place a roast in an oven cooking bag or in a covered pot.
- Refer to the manufacturer's directions that accompany the microwave oven for suggested cooking times.
- Use a meat thermometer to test for doneness in several places to be sure temperatures listed above have been reached.
Since product dates aren't a guide for safe use of a product, how long can the consumer store the food and still use it at top quality? Follow these tips:
- Purchase the product before the date expires.
- Follow handling recommendations on product.
- Keep beef in its package until using.
- It is safe to freeze beef in its original packaging. If freezing longer than 2 months, overwrap these packages with airtight heavy-duty foil, plastic wrap, or freezer paper or place the package inside a plastic bag.
- For storage times, consult the following chart.
Home Storage of Beef Products
|Refrigerator 40°F (4.4°C)
|Freezer 0°F (-17.8°C)
|Fresh Beef Roast, Steaks, Chops or Ribs
|3 to 5 days
|6 to 12 months
|Fresh Beef Liver or Variety Meats
|1 or 2 days
|3 to 4 months
|Home Cooked Beef, Soups, Stews or Casseroles
|3 to 4 days
|2 to 3 months
|Store-Cooked Convenience Meals
|1 to 2 days
|2 to 3 months
|Cooked Beef Gravy or Beef Broth
|1 or 2 days
|2 to 3 months
|Beef Hot Dogs or Lunch Meats, Sealed in Package
|2 weeks (or 1 week after a "Use-By" date)
|1 to 2 months
|Beef Hot Dogs, Opened Package
|1 to 2 months
|Lunch Meats, Opened Package
|3 to 5 days
|1 to 2 months
|TV Dinners, Frozen Casseroles
|3 to 4 months
|Canned Beef Products in Pantry
|2 to 5 years in pantry; 3 to 4 days after opening
|After opening, 2 to 3 months
|Jerky, Commercially Vacuum Packaged
|1 year in pantry; Refrigerate 2 to 3 months
|Do not freeze