US beef industry trials remote carcase grading to help small processors

Beef Central, 24/01/2024

THE United States Department of Agriculture has launched a new trial aiming to give small beef processing plans access to meat grading – by allowing grading staff to assess carcases remotely.

According to the USDA, more than 90pc of America’s fed beef is graded by USDA certified graders. However, the department says most of the graded beef comes out of large processing plants and is underutilised by small packing operations.

The grading services come with a fee, which the USDA says can be unviable for small processors to pay for a grader to travel to facility and perform the service on a relatively small number of cattle.

In response, it is getting trained plant employees to capture specific images of the live animal and beef carcase before submitting the images to a USDA grader, who reviews the images and accompanying plant records and product data before assigning a grading score certification.

Similar beef grading tools have been developed in Australia, but have actually automated the entire grading process, with a number of beef processors now using camera-based objective carcase assessment.

Focus on small packing plants

The US has had a significant focus on building competition in its processing sector, with the country spending recent years in drought, producers liquidating their herds and concerns raised about the discrepancy between supermarket prices and cattle prices. There has been momentum in the establishment of smaller independent red meat processors in the US, partly over concerns about market share held by the ‘big four’ US packers, including government financial support for new establishments.

USDA secretary Tom Vilsack said the pilot was aimed at making the smaller plants more profitable.

“On average, a beef carcase that grades as USDA Prime is valued at hundreds of dollars more than an ungraded carcass, but costs for this voluntary USDA service often prevents smaller scale processors and the farmers and ranchers they serve from using this valuable marketing tool,” Mr Vilsack said.

“This remote grading pilot opens the door for additional packers and processors to receive grading and certification services allowing them to access new, better, and more diverse marketing opportunities.”

National Cattleman’s Beef Association vice president Ethan Lane welcomed the pilot.

“The USDA quality grades of prime, choice, and select are instantly recognized by consumers and an important way for cattle producers to be rewarded for raising high-quality beef,” Mr Lane said.

“NCBA is glad that USDA is launching this Remote Grading Pilot Program and expanding opportunities for meat grading to occur in smaller, local processing facilities. This will increase marketing opportunities for cattle producers and help them capture more value from their product.”















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