Holy Cow

What’s so good about Angus beef?

The New York Times reported over the weekend that a woman became paralyzed after eating hamburgers tainted with E. coli. The burgers, labeled “American Chef’s Selection Angus Beef Patties,” included scraps from factories in Wisconsin, Nebraska, Texas, South Dakota, and Uruguay. What is Angus beef, anyway?

A Scottish breed of cattle. Formerly called Aberdeen Angus after their place of origin, Angus cattle are among the most commonly used breeds in American beef production. They’re popular among producers and consumers because they have more meat on their bones than other breeds as well as distinctive “marbling”—the flecks of fat, which contribute to flavor and texture. Angus cattle are raised all over the world and generally come in two
colors: black and red. Although the breed has a relatively upscale reputation, there’s nothing necessarily superior about Angus beef, which comes in various grades, or levels of quality, as determined by the United States Department of Agriculture: Prime, Choice, Select, Commercial, Utility, and Cutter. (See a detailed explanation of the ratings system here.)

Angus the breed is not synonymous with the brand “Certified Angus Beef”—an up-market product started in 1978 by the American Angus Association. (All Certified Angus Beef patties are made from Angus cattle, but not all Angus cattle are “Certified Angus Beef.) CAB sells only beef that’s in the top two-thirds on the USDA quality scale—it must be Prime or Choice, with “modest” marbling, a 10- to 16-square-inch rib-eye area, and no “neck hump” that exceeds 2 inches. (It’s worth noting that “Certified Angus Beef” is not itself a government designation, like “USDA Organic.”) McDonald’s, by contrast, offers Angus burgers but doesn’t claim to impose the same stringent requirements.

How do you know if a cow is an Angus cow? Cattle breeding is a lot like dog breeding. If a breeder wants to sell his Angus cattle for food, he must prove to the USDA that the animals are at least half Angus. If the cow’s hide is more than 51 percent black, that’s usually enough proof. If there’s any doubt, the breeder must present registration papers that document the animal’s pedigree, including its father and mother (or, in cow terms, sire and dam); that specify how fast it will grow; and, if it’s a female, both how much milk it could produce in its lifetime and its “calving ease,” i.e., how easily the cow could give birth.

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Brent Eichar of Certified Angus Beef; Betty Fussell, author of Raising Steaks: The Life and Times of American Beef; Andrew Rimas, co-author of Beef: The Untold Story of How Milk, Meat, and Muscle Shaped the World; and Crystal Young of the American Angus Association. Thanks also to Daranee Oakley for asking the question.