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Beef, quality-stamped by an in-person grader, may soon be graded by someone looking at a picture

Photo by LKY cattle grazing near Mancos

The USDA says its Remote Grading Pilot for Beef could give small packers and processors a leg up they desperately need.

By Tracy Ross 3:58 AM MST on Feb 19, 2024

From: The Colorado Sun

In the old days, if a small or midsize beef processor wanted to get the most out of their highest-quality meat, they had to do as the big processors do: pay a living, breathing human sometimes upward of $114 an hour to travel to their plant, often out in the boonies, and grade the meat ranchers sold them after seeing it in person.

(Trigger warning: Stop reading if you’d rather not know how your protein is processed.)

Beef comes in “Prime,” “Choice,” “Select,” “Standard” and “Commercial” grades, according to the USDA’s tutorial on the subject, with prices corresponding to those grades. 

Prime beef is produced from young, well-fed beef cattle, has slightly abundant marbling (the amount of fat interspersed with lean meat), and is generally sold in upscale restaurants, according to the USDA. You can also get it at butcher shops, direct from ranches or currently at the Walmart in Broomfield for about $19 a pound.  

Choice beef is high quality but has less marbling than Prime and is available at the above places plus other grocery stores like Sprouts. 

Select beef is very uniform in quality and normally leaner than the higher grades, says USDA, but due to less marbling, it may lack some of the juiciness and flavor. 

And Standard and Commercial grades of beef are frequently sold as ungraded or as store-brand meat. 

Although USDA Prime is valued, on average, at hundreds of dollars more than an ungraded carcass, the cost to have a USDA grader come to a processing plant and give their certified quality stamp “often prevents smaller-scale processors and the farmers and ranchers they serve from using this valuable marketing tool,” said Tom Vilsack, the USDA’s secretary of agriculture.  

That could all change thanks to a new pilot program developed by USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service that takes the living, breathing in-person grader out of beef grading and replaces them with plant employees trained to take specific pictures of the live animal and beef carcass. 

These images — all digital, of course — are submitted electronically to a USDA grader stationed somewhere else in the U.S. That person reviews the pictures and accompanying plant records and product data, assigns a quality grade within 24 hours and communicates the grade back to the plant to be applied to the carcass. Plants spread the word via their retail marketing and let producers know the outcomes, the USDA says. 

“In the past, graders were in the facility grading on a regular daily basis,” Vilsack told an audience at the National Western Stock Show Jan. 19. “If you were big, that was the cost of doing business. But if you’re a small operation and only doing a handful of cows, if you can’t say ‘Prime,’ worth $600, or ‘Select,’ worth $300, it’s the difference between being in business and out.” 

The program comes amid a decades-long decline of farms in the U.S. 

“We are deeply concerned about the accelerated loss of farms and farmland in the last 40 years or so,” Vilsack said. That includes recent downtrends highlighted in agriculture census data released earlier this month showing a loss of 141,733 farms and roughly 20.1 million acres between 2017 and 2022 in the U.S. During that time period, Colorado lost 2,837 farms and 1.62 million acres. 

To help bolster farming, “last year, in 20 operations across the country, we said what if we train people to take really good photos of the carcass so a grader could see what they’re looking at in real time,” Vilsack said. Carl Purvis, USDA spokesperson, said the agency is not at liberty to release information about the feasibility testing participants.

The concept was tested in the latter half of 2023. This year, the Agricultural Marketing Service will expand testing by engaging a larger and more diverse number of beef packers to participate, according to the USDA. The agency will gather additional information on cost and the level of in-person surveillance needed to ensure program consistency and integrity to formalize the service option.

Jessica Bobitsky, owner of Wheat Ridge Poultry and Meats, purchased a mobile slaughter unit that, when the weather allows in spring, she will pull to ranches where she buys beef, lambs, goats and pigs, and slaughter the animals on-site. 

She says for a rancher to offer beef marked Prime on their website, they would have had to have it processed at a USDA plant that offers grading. “Inspection is mandatory but grading is voluntary,” she added, “and the plant or the rancher would have to pay the fees for the grading service, which is the cost of what the secretary was talking about.”

But “these guys that do under 10 cattle a year, they can’t get into the big processing plants,” she said. 

Bobitsky attended the Remote Grading Pilot for Beef information session and plans to get the training.  

With her mobile slaughter unit up and running and her and remote beef-grading certification in hand, she may one day be able to offer ranchers something unprecedented in Colorado: an ultra-streamlined way to get their beef graded remotely, through the help of a processor trained to photograph and upload images, who also happens to be a butcher who can take the beef to her shop to have it cut into steaks, burger, filets and stew meat, and sell it for the price it deserves on the free market. 

Eligible Colorado businesses interested in obtaining the meat grading service under the RGP pilot can contact the agricultural marketing service to begin the process.

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