U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced a pilot program to make accessing carcass quality grades — such as Prime, Choice, and Select — available and affordable for small and mid-sized processors.
Through the pilot program, processors can take a picture of the ribeye loin and upload it from their phones to a secure cloud vault. A trained USDA grader based elsewhere in the U.S. will then review the image and assign a quality grade within 24 hours.
“On average, a beef carcass 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,” Secretary 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.”
The program is specified for small and mid-sized operations only, limiting the number of carcasses a processor can present for grading to 100 per week.
USDA offers these services to packers and processors on a user-fee basis. While over 90 percent of America’s fed beef supply is officially graded by USDA, most users are large beef packing operations.
USDA’s meat grading and certification services are significantly underutilized by small, independent processors, in large part due to the expense of paying for a highly trained USDA grader to travel to their facility to perform service in person for a relatively small number of cattle that may not require a full day of the graders’ work.
So far, Experience with remote grading has shown it dramatically reduces travel-related expenses, making the service more accessible to smaller processors.
The U.S. Cattlemen’s Association worked with USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service to provide technical guidance on this pilot program. The USCA Independent Beef Processing Committee presented the concept in a policy resolution adopted in 2020.
USCA Independent Beef Processing Chairman Patrick Robinette said, “Before today’s announcement, it was simply unaffordable for an independent producer or processor to participate in providing quality-graded beef to the marketplace. On my operation, the cost would have averaged $410 per head to receive grading services, which I would have never recouped.”
“The pilot program would reduce that cost to $4.56 per head.” Robinette continued. “Now, the producers I serve will be able to access value-added programs that were previously unavailable to them. With the free ribeye grid device that will be provided to participating processing facilities, independent producers and processors can qualify for programs like Certified Angus Beef.
The Remote Grading Pilot for Beef is limited to domestic beef slaughter facilities operating under federal inspection and producing product that meets the eligibility criteria for the USDA grading program.
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Author: Heidi Crnkovic