Beef grade face lift proposed

Imagine beef on grocery store shelves rated similarly to hotels: five stars for excellent or three stars for OK — that’s what a group of University of Alberta students are proposing.

The capstone project, led by the fourth-year agriculture undergrads, looks to slowly change beef grading in Canada, moving to a five-point system that scores for quality.

“Some of the best cuts would be 5/5 and some of the not-so good cuts would score lower,” said James Ritchie, discussing the project with his peers at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.

“It lets consumers know how the meat is going to taste when they buy it, as long as they cook it according to a certain method.”

Ritchie partnered with Claye Harsany, Vladimir Tadic, Dana Stoyberg and Heidi Trenson for the project.

The group initially consulted with project mentor Heather Bruce, realizing Canada’s grading system could be improved to get more consumers buying local beef.

Ritchie said consumers don’t fully understand the current grading system. They might think Prime is better than AA, which it’s not, he said, and AA is better than A, which isn’t always the case.

“It can compromise their eating experiences because they don’t know what they are buying,” he said.

“In Canada, we issue an entire carcass a grade, but that doesn’t give consumers a real idea of how those lower quality cuts are going to taste.”

The students said the five-point system would address consumer uncertainty, ensuring they feel confident in the beef they buy.

“Consumers are willing to pay more for those cuts when they know what they are buying,” Ritchie said.

The proposed system would be similar to the voluntary Meat Standards Australia quality program, which requires everyone along the value-chain to follow specific control measures.

Stoyberg said Australia adopted the program because local beef consumption was declining; consumers weren’t happy and felt the meat was inconsistent.

Taste panels of consumers were created to test the meat, she said, with results being used in an algorithm to create the country’s five-point system.

Management practices were also linked to taste, giving producers and handlers a better idea of what they could do to improve quality.

“The tests got them looking at producer parameters, how it’s handled and some of the measures taken to slaughter,” Ritchie said.

Their proposed system would be geared toward Canadian producers on a small-scale, partnering with the Canadian Beef Grading Agency and at least one packing plant, ensuring everyone along the value-chain is following standards.

Some retailers would also take part, marketing the beef with specific logos and branding that are consumer friendly.

“Because packing plants would be getting a price premium, they would need to pay producers a little more for meat,” Ritchie said.

Tadic said producers taking part in the Australian program receive 40 percent of the retail value, the wholesaler gets 35 percent and the retailer gets 17 percent.

“With time, this would take off as more retailers and packing plants take part,” Ritchie said. “Starting off small-scale would minimize risk a little bit.”

Harsany said the branding could look similar to what’s already out there: cattle on a pasture, mountains in the background and, of course, a five-star rating.

“I think consumers would rather purchase something like that over a white label that just says AA,” he said. “They would be willing to pay for it even if there was a premium.”

The students said their idea comes at a time when Canada is opening up trade overseas, potentially giving international consumers a greater reason to buy Canadian beef.

Trade uncertainty with Canada’s biggest beef importer, the United States, has recently loomed, they added, suggesting this idea could help decrease reliance on exports because local people would be willing to pay more for domestic beef.

“At the end of the day, local consumers like to support their industries,” Ritchie said.

The students plan on meeting with the Canadian Beef Grading Agency and the Beef Cattle Research Council to discuss the idea.

“This would be great to have,” Harsany said.

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