Meat grading overhaul long time coming

Despite an agreement in 2011 to change from three yield classes to five, changes have been stalled by regulations

The head of the Canadian Beef Grading Agency would change the way millions of cattle are graded each year if she had her way.

Cindy Delaloye said proposals have been made since 2011 to change the current system of three yield classes to five, which would more accurately assess modern beef carcasses.

However, not much has happened.

“I don’t think it is modern science,” Delaloye said.

“It is the 1950s version of what a carcass yields. I would like to go to five yield classes, but I would like something more current.”

Grading legislation is covered in the Safe Food for Canadians Act of 2012, but the regulations have not been published.

“We were hoping that the modernization of regulations would be published in January of this year,” Delaloye told the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association annual meeting, which was held in Ottawa March 10-12.

“We have been hearing ‘next year’ for a long time.”

Agriculture minister Gerry Ritz said the delay has been caused by the United States and the Beyond the Border initiative to standardize regulations between the U.S. and Canada. The U.S. is also considering a change to its beef grading system, but it too is moving slowly.

Charlie Gracey agreed that a major overhaul is needed, which would include adopting computerized systems to provide a more accurate assessment of every carcass when it comes down the rail.

“I think we should be moving to instrument grading. We’ve got the technology, we’ve got the know-how,” said Gracey, who has written a lengthy research paper on how the system should be modernized.

He was involved in privatizing the Canadian grading system in 1995.

“We need an instrument measure to more accurately measure the yield of the carcass,” he said in an interview.

An agreement was reached in Calgary in 2011 to go to five yield classes, but it did not happen because of regulatory delay.

“I suggested a memorandum of understanding at which time the packers, the producers and the government had agreed the changes should be made,” Gracey said.

Yield is the proportion of the carcass that is salable, lean meat, while carcass quality is based on how much marbling is seen in the rib-eye and is categorized as Canada Prime, AAA, AA and A.

The quality grades were developed at Agriculture Canada’s research centre in 1992 in La-combe, Alta., along with the yield grade category, which is measured with a ruler.

The industry moved away from producing leaner carcasses to carcasses with more marbling. The result was fatter cattle with lower red meat yields.

Gracey said in his paper that yield is often confused with dressing percent, which is the ratio of the carcass weight to the live weight. Yield refers to the ratio between carcass weight and some representation of its lean meat content.

According to Canfax, two carcasses weighing the same can differ significantly in the amount of red meat yield.

If both weigh 800 pounds, the amount of meat yield from a Yield 1 is 472 lb. while the meat yield from a Yield 3 is 424 lb.

There is a wide difference in revenue extracted from that carcass. The Yield 3 carcass has 48 lb. more fat, which is considered a byproduct with much less value.

Gracey used to work with the now closed Natural Valley meat plant in Saskatchewan, which measured carcass rib- eye area and fat depths to assign more accurate grades. That information was returned to producers.

Natural Valley paid more for superior yielding cattle to send a message to producers, who could make breeding adjustments.

“If we don’t tell the producers who are responsible for the breeding, that is, the next generation of calves, we don’t send the information back to them, how in the hell are we going to improve the industry,” said Gracey.

“The present ruler won’t give you a yield higher than 65 percent, and we were getting up to 72 percent.”

It is possible to have AAA carcasses with high yields from animals that are not over-fat.

“A third of the carcasses are above average on both yield and quality. That is the kind we want to select for,” he said. “Research has shown that with proper and careful selection in breeding and feeding, you can have both.”

Computerized grading has been available for more than 20 years.

The most recent development is a computer vision grading system called e+v Technology GmbH Beef Instrument Technology.

Developed in Germany, it is a stationary machine that photographs and analyzes the rib eye area between the 12th and 13th ribs of both sides of a carcass as it passes by on a moving rail. It can measure fat, rib eye width and rib eye length and calculates a lean yield percentage, which provides a lean yield grade and a marbling score.

In some situations, such as where it is difficult for the camera to get an accurate reading, a grader can provide an overall assessment or override the camera’s grading.

The technology is objective and assesses marbling under the same light and at the same distance from the rib eye based on minute calculations of red and white pixels within the traced muscle. This reduces the variability that is inherent with human assessment.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has approved its use, and it has been used at the Lakeside Packers plant near Brooks, Alta. since 201, Delaloye said in an email.

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