The Van Trump Report

USDA Introduces Remote Beef-Grading Pilot That Uses Smartphones

As part of ongoing efforts to help small, independent processors and ranchers, the United States Department of Agriculture has begun a pilot program that allows users to grade beef remotely. Developed by the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), the agency says the “Remote Grading Pilot for Beef” (RGP Pilot) can dramatically reduce the overall cost of service for independent beef packers, in particular those who may only need five or even 50 carcasses graded at a time. Best of all, the only technology required is a smartphone.

USDA’s beef grading system sets the standards for the various quality levels of beef. This information is relayed to customers via labels that identify the content’s grade – prime, choice, or select. Beef grades are primarily determined by the degree of marbling, though other factors like animal age, and color and texture of the muscle are considered.

What many don’t know is that beef quality grading is completely voluntary. While over 90% of America’s fed beef supply is officially graded by USDA, most users are large beef packing operations. Typically, highly trained USDA graders perform their services on-site at packing plants on a user-fee basis.

However, USDA says its meat grading and certification services are significantly underutilized by small, independent processors. This is largely due to the prohibitive costs associated with paying for a grader to travel to a remote location for a relatively small number of cattle. The new program eliminates those expenses.

Under the new program, plant workers will take images of animal and beef carcasses and submit them to a USDA grader in another location, according to a press release. A grader will then assess the beef carcass characteristics and assign the official grade within 24 hours. Notably, the program is specified for use by small and mid-sized operations only, limiting the number of carcasses a processor can present for grading to 100 per week.    

Beef industry stakeholders have applauded the new program, which was developed with the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association. “Now, the producers I serve will be able to access value-added programs that were previously unavailable to them,” Patrick Robinette, independent beef processing chairman for the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association, said in a statement.

“On my operation, the cost would have averaged $410 per head to receive grading services, which I would have never recouped,” Robinette said. “The pilot program would reduce that cost to $4.56 per head.” Ethan Lane, vice president of government affairs for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, said quality grades “will increase marketing opportunities for cattle producers and help them capture more value from their product.”

USDA says the RGP pilot will build on lessons learned during the agency’s feasibility study of a “remote grading” process conducted during the second half of 2023. Through the new pilot, AMS will gather additional information on actual cost and the level of in-person surveillance needed to ensure program consistency and integrity to formalize this service option as part of the USDA Quality Grading Service. Eligible packers can learn more about the pilot HERE. (Sources: USDA, FoodDive, AgriPulse)

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