Instrument grading of beef carcasses

Instrument grading of beef carcasses is USDA approved and used in many packing plants.

For decades the beef industry honed in on developing instrument grading of beef carcasses. Millions of carcasses had data collected on them in the process and now most of the major beef packing facilities use this technology. The technology is video image analysis and it consists of a robust, high-resolution digital camera and computer technology that can withstand cold and damp meat plant conditions.

The process has been approved by the USDA, although each plant must go through an approval process in order to use it to assign USDA quality and yield grades to carcasses. Plants that have not yet sought approval for assigning official USDA grades are often still using the technology for calculating yield grade and paying producers that market cattle on a carcass-value basis.

The use of instrument grading does not replace the USDA grader personnel. Official graders are still needed to monitor the process and accuracy of the images being taken. Additionally, maturity is still measured by graders and things like identification of dark cutters requires a human. Graders over time have been very consistent across the nation in determining yield and quality grades. At chain speeds of 300-400 carcasses per hour in many packing plants, the demands on a human grader are quite high and require estimations of many factors in a short amount of time. Instrument grading increases consistency, uniformity, and precision. Yield grade can now be determined to the nearest tenth instead of a whole number.

The process of verification of the instrument grading system was thorough and in-depth. The technology was tested against a panel of graders in numerous different plants and on thousands of carcasses. When it was first implemented and approved, USDA wanted a seamless transition, including consistency in the percentage of cattle grading Choice.

The factors for determining yield grade are still the same, including fat thickness; carcass weight; ribeye area; and percentage of kidney, pelvic and heart fat. The same is true for quality grading that accounts for marbling, measured by the camera, and maturity that is still determined by the grader. The camera takes these measurements at the same place a USDA grader would, on the lean surface between the 12th and 13th ribs.

Re-grades is the process of checks and balance in a packing plant. After USDA personnel assign yield and quality grades to a carcass, plant personnel then monitor those grades. When there is disagreement, plants rail-off those carcasses and have them re-graded. This process adds to time and space needed in a shift of production and is greatly reduced with instrument grading. 

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