Beef from A to Z
- 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 2 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, NOT 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 & 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 is so
residues can 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 only, 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 grad
USDA Prime beef (about two percent 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’ Grading and
Verification Division 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),
Labeling and Program Delivery Division (LPDD).
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.
How much beef is consumed?
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?|
|1910||48 pounds||1960||59 pounds|
|1920||41 pounds||1970||80 pounds|
|1930||34 pounds||1980||72 pounds|
|1940||38 pounds||1990||64 pounds|
|1950||45 pounds||2012||54.5 pounds|
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
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 & 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
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
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. coliO157: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. They 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
- 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
- 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
- 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||Size||Cooking Method||Cooking Time||Internal Temperature|
|Rib Roast, bone in||4 to 6 lbs.||Roast 325 °F||23-25 min./lb.||145 °F (62.8 °C) and allow to rest at least 3 minutes|
|Rib Roast, boneless rolled||4 to 6 lbs.||Roast 325 °F||Add 5-8 min./lb. to times above|
|Chuck Roast, Brisket||3 to 4 lbs.||*Braise 325 °F||*Braise 325 °F|
|Round or Rump Roast||2 1/2 to 4 lbs.||Roast 325 °F||30-35 min./lb.|
|Tenderloin, whole||4 to 6 lbs.||Roast 425 °F||45-60 min. total|
|Steaks||3/4″ thick||Broil/Grill||4-5 min. per side|
|Stew or Shank Cross Cuts||1 to 1 1/2″ thick||Cover with liquid; simmer||2 to 3 hours|
|Short Ribs||4″ long and 2″ thick||*Braise 325 °F||1 1/2 to 2 1/2 hours|
|Hamburger patties, fresh||4 ounces||Grill, broil or fry||3 to 5 minutes per side||160 °F (71.1 °C)|
*Braising is roasting or simmering less-tender meats with a small amount of liquid in a tightly covered pan.
- 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
- 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
- For storage times, consult the following chart.
Home Storage of Beef Products
If product has a “Use-By” Date, follow that date. If product has a
“Sell-By” Date or no date, cook or freeze the product by the times on
the following chart.
|Storage Times for Beef Products|
|Product||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||7 days||1 to 2 months|
|Lunch meats, opened package||3 to 5 days||1 to 2 months|
|TV dinners, frozen casseroles||Keep Frozen||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|