The Internet has become a very popular place to purchase high quality steaks, meats and other food products. The question for most online buyers of these products is “Am I getting the best product for the best price”. A number of factors should be taken into account before you purchase any food product online. In this editorial, we are going to focus primarily on steaks, but will touch on other related food products.
1) How is meat graded and why?
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Beef grades are most commonly known as USDA Prime, USDA Choice and USDA Select. (The following percentages represent only the produced beef within these 3 grade levels) USDA Prime grade beef accounts for the top 2%* of all produced beef in the US. Ranked for it high degree of marbling and tenderness, This highly sought after cut is usually only found in high-end restaurants and online suppliers. USDA Choice grade beef accounts for 53%* of all produced beef in the US. Ranked as number two in grading, there is a wide variation of quality within this grade. Within Choice grade are 3 categories of marbling, which contributes to the overall flavor, tenderness and juiciness of the meat.
- a.) The first level of Choice grading is moderate marbling and accounts for 5% of USDA graded meats.
- b.) The second level of Choice grading is modest marbling and accounts for 14% of USDA graded meats.
- c.) The third level of Choice grading is small marbling and accounts for 34% of USDA graded meats.
USDA Select grade beef accounts for the remaining 45%*. Low in marbling, tenderness and price, this grade is most often found on supermarket shelves. This grade can very often be dry and tough. Marinating is often needed to keep these steaks moist. As with any product, the higher grade or quality almost always demands a higher price.
2) What do I look for when buying steaks online?
- a.) Be sure to look for the words “Prime, Choice or Select” when an online supplier describes the product they are selling. If the description is void of any of these key words, you most likely will be purchasing the lowest grade of meat and usually at an elevated price. Note: Avoid steaks or meats only labeled “premium”, “Gourmet”, “aged” or other generic sounding term, if they are not labeled Prime or Choice, you are most likely getting a select grade.
- b.) Be sure the meat is labeled USDA either within the meat category or in the product description when purchasing from an online supplier.
- c.) It is not reasonable to expect online suppliers to advertise what level of Choice grade meat you are buying because of the constant change of meat supplies. This knowledge usually comes from purchasing experience with the company or by emailing the online retailer and asking if their Choice grade marbling is moderate, modest or small. Most reputable commercial cutters try to maintain a high level of consistency to maintain their reputation as a high-end supplier.
3) What is a fair price for Prime and Choice meats?
With any online product, prices vary greatly. Many online merchants charge exaggerated prices for what you are getting, however there are many merchants who sell an excellent product for a very fair price. Remember, when shopping for steaks online you are wanting and paying for a high-end, quality culinary experience. Anything less, you might as well go to the super market. Look for online merchants that have USDA Officials onsite at their own facility or their suppliers’ facility. Beyond that, it is best to scan many online steak retailers and compare product prices. Also take into account shipping costs. Be wary of free shipping combined with low priced steaks. Usually this means you are going to get an inferior grade of meat. Most reputable merchants will charge a fair price for the steaks and a reasonable shipping charge based on weight, (not purchase level). It is expensive for any online merchant to ship meat. Dry Ice is usually added, packed in a cooler with the steaks. We have added a list with our top 6 picks of online steak merchants and ranked them according to grade, price and shipping. We have only included merchants who clearly label their products as Prime and Choice cuts. (internet research pricing as of 07/14/2008)
Online Store Prime Filet Mignon Shipping**
Kansascitysteaks.com $42.49 lb $14.95 – 4 lb order
Choicefilets.com $39.95 lb $18.07 – 4 lb order
Newbrunswicksteakco.com $44.50 lb $23.78 – 4 lb order
Mybutcher.com $56.65 lb $27.95 – 4 lb order
Allenbrothers.com $59.98 lb $16.95 – 4 lb order
Lobels.com $70.98 lb $32.95 – 4 lb order
Online Store Choice Filet Mignon Shipping**
Choicefilets.com $25.95 lb $18.07 – 4 lb order
Omahasteaks.com $29.99 lb $18.99 – 4 lb order
Heartlandsteaks.com $29.95 lb $19.99 – 4 lb order
Allenbrothers.com $44.98 lb $16.95 – 4 lb order
Eprimecuts.com $37.25 lb $30.00 – 4 lb order
Dinewise.com $39.99 lb $33.95 – 4 lb order
4) How do I know if an online steak store is a local or family owned meat house or just a reseller from a commercial supplier and does it really make a difference?
Internet online steak merchants are made up of both. It should not be a focus of the purchaser whether your online purchases come from a butcher shop or a commercial cutter. Both types must maintain their facility according to USDA standards and must provide you product as it is represented. Many online stores do indeed provide online steaks and other products provided by a commercial facility. More often that not these facilities provide better grade meats at a more consistent level than the smaller producers. Like many industries, the buying power of larger facilities can demand this level of quality and consistency. For the consumer, concentrate on the grade of cut, the clarity of the description, the variety of products offered and most importantly, price.
*Source USDA and 2000 National Beef Quality Audit
**Based on 100 mile distance from shipping origin.