Consumers have been cutting their budgets, but it doesn’t mean enjoying a good steak or burger from time to time is a no-no.
But whether you’re cooking at home or stopping at a local fast food joint, is Angus beef worth the extra money? And since every other restaurant (including McDonald’s and Burger King) seems to be touting it, what the heck does the Angus designation even mean?
The Meaning of Angus
Angus may be a compelling marketing term suggesting better quality – at least you’d hope so for the premium you’d pay – but the name also describes a breed of cattle.
“All Angus beef is not created equal,” according to the Certified Angus Beef brand, however. The certified beef has to meet strict quality standards and less than 8% of all beef earns the brand’s premium name.
In order to qualify as Certified Angus Beef, meat has to come from cattle that are certified on paper to have specific genetic qualities and their bodies must be 51% or more solid black, hence the term “Black Angus.”
Angus cattle are known for genes that make meat well marbled, more tender and flavorful. Good marbling means fat is dispersed thinly and evenly throughout the meat, ensuring the consistent texture, juiciness and flavor.
Retail prices for Certified Angus Beef are about 10% higher than regular USDA choice for stuff like ground chuck, and 10% to 15% higher for steaks, according to Brent Eichar, a Senior Vice President at Certified Angus Beef, LLC.
He also says they expect to sell more pounds of Certified Angus Beef this year than any other in history, and that while sales to restaurants are down, sales to grocery stores are up significantly, meaning consumers are buying it at the store and preparing it at home instead of going out.
Good Beef Grades
While on the surface, the name Angus implies quality, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has separate classifications of meat in addition to the Angus classification, including Prime, Choice, Select and Standard grade beef.
The best grade of beef is Prime, which comes from young, well fed beef cattle, according to the USDA. “It has abundant marbling and is generally sold in restaurants and hotels,” the agency notes. The next-best beef is Choice grade, which is high quality beef but has less marbling than Prime beef.
Less than 1.5% of all beef earns the Certified Angus Beef brand Prime label, exceeding the highest quality standards to ensure every bite is abundantly flavorful and incredibly tender and juicy, according to the Certified Angus Beef brand.
While McDonalds (Stock Quote: MCD), Burger King (Stock Quote: BKC) and Hardee’s (Stock Quote: CKR) burgers may be touted as Angus beef, and may have boosted the companies’ recent profits, it doesn’t mean they’re Certified Angus Beef.
McDonald’s Angus burgers are made with 100% Angus beef, according to the restaurant chain, but it’s not listed as Certified Angus Beef specifically. In fact, here are the ingredients in a McDonald’s Angus beef patty:
100% Angus beef. Prepared with Grill Seasoning (salt, black pepper) and Angus Burger Seasoning: Salt, sugar, dextrose, onion powder, maltodextrin, natural butter flavor (dairy source), autolyzed yeast extract, spices, garlic powder, vegetable protein (hydrolyzed corn, soy and wheat), natural (animal, plant and botanical source) and artificial flavors, dried beef broth, sunflower oil, caramel color, partially hydrogenated cottonseed and soybean oil, gum arabic, soy sauce solids (wheat, soybean, salt, maltodextrin, caramel color), palm oil, worcestershire sauce powder [distilled vinegar, molasses, corn syrup, salt, caramel color, garlic powder, sugar, spices, tamarind, natural flavor (fruit source), beef fat, annatto and turmeric (color), calcium silicate and soybean oil (prevent caking). CONTAINS: MILK, SOY AND WHEAT.
What’s most interesting about this is that McDonald’s adds “beef fat” to their Angus burgers. Since Angus is known to be a particularly well marbled or fatty breed, either the McDonald’s angus beef is not all that fatty, or it’s not fatty enough for McDonald’s customers. We asked McDonald's to explain the added fat, but we'res till waiting for them to get back to us with an answer.
“Certified Angus Beef does not go to fast food restaurants. It’s at the higher-end restaurants,” says Anne Trenholm, a spokeswoman for the American Angus Association (she also happened to grow up on an Angus cattle ranch). That’s part of what makes and continues to assure that it’s a premium brand, she says.
Angus beef that’s not Certified Angus Beef may not be the guaranteed best available based on cattle lineage and quality standards, but demand for any Angus beef is growing, according to Angus.org. So whether it’s certified or not, that could make it more than just a rare treat.
UPDATE: McDonald's got back to us and they wanted to correct a few innacuracies. The first thing the PR spokesperson said was that they didn't add fat to the burgers. They added fat to the seasoning... and they add seasoning to the burger. I'm not making this up. It is true, however that they put just one gram of seasoning into each 1/3 lb. angus burger, which seems to be relatively little.
They didn't provide a real answer to what is probably a more important question: if McDonald's Angus isn't "Certified" Angus, then what kind of Angus is it?
Here's a statement we received from Robert Cannell, Ph. D., Director, McDonald’s U.S. Supply Chain Management:
“With respect to your question about McDonald’s Angus beef, a majority of McDonald’s Angus beef is sourced domestically and is qualified under USDA process verification programs. However, due to the quality and quantity of meat needed to serve all of our customers, we do import a small percentage that is qualified under the Certified Australian Angus Beef standards. All McDonald’s beef is 100 percent USDA-inspected beef. All suppliers of beef to McDonald's must meet our stringent requirements for quality, safety, animal welfare, and social accountability. Those standards often exceed government requirements. 'Certified Angus Beef' is a registered trademark not owned by the USDA and not used by McDonald’s. McDonald’s Angus beef is qualified by the USDA. In addition, all McDonald’s Angus beef patties are made with 100 percent Angus beef. The Angus beef patty is prepared with two seasonings, which is the source of additional ingredients listed. Less than one gram of seasoning is used on each Angus burger.”
We found the statement to be a bit unclear and asked a bunch of follow up questions, including those concerning the exact sourcing of their Angus beef and the nature of the USDA certification to which they alluded in the statement, among other things. But McDonld's refused to answer, saying that the above statement "stands on its own merit."