28 Meat Grading and Cutting

Meat grading and cutting are important commercially - but the details change from time to time and from place to place.  The objective of this brief overview is to highlight a few fundamentals unlikely to change.

28.1 Principles of grading

28.2 Beef grading

The first step of most beef grading systems is to place the carcass into a maturity group.  Although many beef animals arrive at the abattoir with some identification, often an electronic implant, the grading system must give equal treatment to animals without identification - where animal age is unknown. Young cattle produce more tender beef than old cattle - so grading must first sort animals using an estimate of their age.  Dentition would be useful - but the head is usually removed before grading starts.  Most grading systems use the degree of replacement of cartilage by bone in parts of the skeleton revealed as the carcass is split into left and right sides.


1. Cartilaginous caps on the first few thoracic vertebrae not more than half ossified.

2. First few lumbar vertebrae with evidence of cartilage or a red line on the neural  spinous process tip.

3. Neural  process is red and porous spinous when split.

4. Medial view shows ribs are narrow, round, and red.

5. The sternebrae are not fused.



1. Thoracic caps more than half ossified.

2. No cartilage or red line on lumbar vertebrae.

3. Hard, white, flinty neural processes when split.

4. Wide, flat, white ribs.

5. Ossified sternum.

Having eliminated older animals, attention is then usually directed at yield grading in the top grade of beef. Yield grading will be used by the purchaser to estimate the yield of meat from the carcass.  Obviously, a carcass with a high meat yield is worth more than a carcass with a low yield. Yield grading is based on the fact it is extremely difficult to assess the bulging and length of muscles, but quite easy to assess the amount of fat on the carcass. If we assume the amount of bone is approximately constant (usually but not always true), then carcass weight which is not fat - must be meat. However, any reliable information on muscularity greatly improves this indirect estimate using fat alone. Thus, in many countries, carcasses are split through the posterior part of the ribcage to expose the Longissimus dorsi (usually the Longissimus thoracis which is the part of the Longissimus dorsi running the rib region). Some feature of the size of this muscle (area, length and/or depth) is used to help estimate meat yield. Can you see an obvious source of error? What will happen if we have an animal with a longer vertebral column than normal? A long carcass may have a high meat yield, even though its muscles may not be bulging. (Review Lecture 24 again if this does not make sense.)


(1) An estimate of  subcutaneous fat thickness, usually made where the Longissimus dorsi is exposed.

(2) An estimate of the visceral fat remaining on the carcass,

(3) An estimate of the cross sectional area of the Longissimus dorsi muscle at the separation of the forequarter and the hindquarter.

(4) Hot carcass weight, or an estimate made from the cold carcass weight (cold weight x 1.02).


(1) A check the fat is not too yellow.

(2) A check the muscles are not too dark.

Summary. Most beef grading systems attempt to sort carcasses on the basis of both meat quality and meat yield. But the system is far from perfect. A young animal with tough meat will outrage consumers. An older animal with tender meat will be wasted. In the future, there may be better methods of beef grading - using image analysis, ultrasonics and meat quality probes. Beef grading tends to be forward looking - the grading information is passed onto meat cutters (estimated yield) and consumers (meat quality assurance). Sometimes the information is fed back to producers to award a premium for a high-quality carcass.

28.3 Pork grading

28.4 Poultry grading

28.5 Recognition of cuts of meat

Without taking a course in meat cutting, the most we can hope for here is for students to recognize where a meat cut originates in the carcass.

Skeletal features

  1. Look for a series of exposed blocks of porous bone. If a deep groove (neural canal) runs through the series, the bones are vertebrae from along the animal's backbone. If no groove is present, the bones may be part of the sternum. However, if a carcass has been poorly split into sides, the midline cut may miss the neural canal.
  2. Look for rounded cross sections of bone from a limb, but remember part of the shaft of the ilium also is round in cross section.
  3. The whole hindlimb is rounded in cross section, but the forelimb is flattened because it is located against the rib cage.
  4. When the ilium has a rounded cross section in a whole sirloin, the muscle mass is lop‑sided, and there is some trace of the sacrum on the edge of the cut of meat. The more posterior part of the shaft of the ilium is triangular in cross section.
  5. When the femur has a rounded cross section in the round, ham or hind leg, it is almost in the center of a circle of meat.
  6. When the humerus or the shaft of the scapula have a rounded cross section in the chuck or arm region, it is alongside a series of transected ribs, and the muscle mass of the limb is oval in cross section.
  7. Look for a section that has been cut through a flat bone. If rigidly part of the body of a vertebra, and if it is narrow, it may be a wing‑like transverse process of a lumbar vertebra from the loin. If it is rigidly part of a vertebra and is dorsal to the neural canal, and if it is one of a series of wide porous sections of bone, it may be a dorsal spine of a thoracic vertebra from the blade or rib region of the carcass. If it is curved and if it is movably jointed to a vertebra, it is probably the dorsal part of a rib. If it is parallel to a vertebral process, or if it is joined by cartilage to a vertebra, it may be the flat part of the ilium from the sirloin.
  8.  If it is isolated by itself in the meat, or if it is shaped like a letter T, it is probably the scapula.
  9. If there are no bones in the cut of meat, and if it is a flat slab of meat composed of several layers of flat muscles, it is probably part of the flank or abdominal wall.
  10. If the cut of meat has large vertebrae with a complex shape, and if the outer surface of the meat is dark and ragged, the meat is probably from the neck.
  11. If the outer surface of the cut of meat contains a flat rounded area of bone with a dimpled surface and traces of dried cartilage, the bone is the pubis from the rump region.
  12. Look for a hole in the meat where the carcass might have been suspended from a large hook or gambrel. This indicates a hind leg, or the heel of the round in beef. In beef, the achilles tendon is hard, dry, pale yellow in color, and extremely strong
  13. Look for a series of parallel ribs. The anterior ribs are shorter than the posterior ribs, and anterior ribs connect directly to the sternum.
  14. Look for a long flap of muscle that runs diagonally over the medial surfaces of the ribs. This flap of muscle is the diaphragm. The ventral part of the diaphragm is anterior to the posterior part. In the beef carcass, the anterior part of the diaphragm appears in the plate, and the posterior part of the diaphragm appears at the start of the loin.
  15. Look for a ball and socket joint. The socket of the scapula in the chuck region of the carcass is wide and shallow. The socket that forms the acetabulum of the pelvis is narrow and deep, and there may be a trace of the ligament which holds the head of the femur into the socket. In pork and lamb, the acetabulum may be contained in the top of the ham or leg.
  16. Look for a small loose bone that would fill a cupped hand. This is the patella of the hind limb.
  17. Look for the stump of the tail, with its small, simple caudal vertebrae.
  18. Look for a series of small round sections of white cartilages. These are the costal cartilages from the plate, flank, belly or breast.
  19. Look for groups of several small muscles, each surrounded by white fibrous tissue. These are the extensor and flexor muscles from the distal part of a limb. The Achilles tendon indicates the hind limb.

Further information

Meat cuts from many countries and in many languages are available in:

Swatland, H.J. (2004). Meat Cuts and Muscle Foods. Nottingham University Press, Nottingham.