New technology enables improved meat grading

Linking production with value | Infrared spectroscopy can scan a carcass and an X-ray absorptiometry machine can assess bone density

TORONTO — The ranking of beef and pork carcasses may be due for a change.

Grading systems have been around for decades, but new technology can assess carcasses at the molecular level for a better estimation of lean meat yield, fat cover and other commercially valuable traits.

Scientists at Agriculture Canada in Quebec and Lacombe, Alta., are among those looking at new ways to analyze a side of pork or beef.

A grading system places carcasses with similar characteristics into commercial groups, but it may not be discovering the full value.

“If we want to pay producers in relation to the quality of their product, we are not there,” said Candido Pomar of Agriculture Canada, who is studying new ways to analyze pork.

“If we want to send a clear signal to the production sector and stimulate the production of the most valuable carcasses, we are not there.”

The current pork grading system uses carcass weight and a lean meat yield standard. The carcasses can then be sorted by weight and lean meat, but the composition and quality of the hams and loins could be different.

Visual assessments and meat probes to measure fat and lean depth have limited benefits and do not provide much information.

Pomar told the Canadian Meat Council annual meeting held in Toronto May 6-9 that the system should go further so that it measures quality to the level of the actual cuts. Assessing cuts such as hams and loins could help the industry pay producers more fairly and make improvements so that buyers receive what they want.

Video image analysis gives a clearer picture on the slaughterhouse floor of each carcass. A video camera takes a picture of the whole carcass and then the image goes to a computer to measure and analyze it for composition and value.

Pomar said a new pork carcass quality assessment method could precisely determine the weight, composition and value of each carcass. It would then evaluate the composition and weight of each cut.

The next step would be to improve carcass cutting for the market, evaluate genetic merit of individual carcasses, establish a better payment scheme and provide the right signal to producers who want to improve carcass quality.

Oscar Lopez-Campos of Agriculture Canada’s research centre in Lacombe is looking at how to enhance a system that has 13 quality grades based on key factors such as sex, age, conformation, fat and meat colour and texture.

The Canadian system was last overhauled in 1992 with the creation of the grades A, AA and AAA. Canada Prime was introduced in 1997 and requirements for minimum fat cover and muscling requirements were changed in 2001.

Lopez-Campos said the current grading system is based on a test that a carcass passes or fails. It has to pass all the tests to receive the top grade.

Research at Lacombe is looking at the actual dissection of carcasses to assess lean meat yield estimations.

Vision analysis systems are used in Canadian plants to take a picture of the rib eye.

They then use algorithms to estimate the yield and marbling.

A rib eye is a yield Grade 1 if it has equal to or more than 59 percent lean meat, yield Grade 2 if the lean ratio is 54 to 58 percent and yield Grade 3 is it is less than 53 percent.

Lopez-Campos said Canada established algorithms for grading in 1993, but no updates have been made since then, even though cattle genetics have changed.

He is also experimenting with a dual energy X-ray absorptiometry (DEXA) machine, which is used in human medicine to assess bone density.

The carcass is scanned and an image is generated. Information can be correlated with the carcass cutout to give a prediction of fat, lean and bone. He said this could update the yield equation without an expensive national cut-out study.

Researchers at Lacombe are also using near infrared spectroscopy, which is a well-established technology in the grain and forage industry. It is a rapid technology and can scan a carcass as it moves down the processing line.

It can be used for grading and is able to segregate the dark cutters in beef at an accuracy rate of 90 percent. Dark cutters have dark, dry meat and are downgraded.

Lopez-Campos said an added benefit of this collection of technologies is the possibility to create an international grading system.

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