Meat & Livestock News

USDA Introduces Innovative Remote Beef Grading Program

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), led by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, has launched an innovative pilot program aimed at enhancing market access for cattle producers and meat processors. Announced on January 19, the Remote Grading Pilot for Beef, developed by the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), is set to revolutionise the beef grading process.

This new initiative allows USDA graders to evaluate beef carcass characteristics and assign official quality grades remotely. This method is designed to lower costs and remove barriers to participating in voluntary grading services, making it more accessible, especially for smaller-scale processors.

Secretary Vilsack unveiled the program at the National Western Stock Show in Denver, Colorado. He highlighted the significant financial benefits of USDA Prime-graded beef, which can be valued hundreds of dollars more than ungraded carcasses.

However, the cost of this voluntary service often limits its use by smaller processors and the farmers they support. The remote grading pilot aims to change this, enabling more packers and processors to utilise grading and certification services, thereby accessing diverse marketing opportunities.

The USDA’s quality grades – Prime, Choice, and Select – are crucial for consumers, buyers, and sellers, offering clear, standardised indicators of beef quality.

Currently, the USDA grades 90% of America’s beef supply, predominantly used by large beef packing operations. Smaller, independent processors have underutilised meat grading and certification services, mainly due to the high costs of having a USDA grader travel to their facilities for a service that doesn’t require a full day’s work.

The pilot program involves trained plant employees capturing specific images of live animals and beef carcasses. These images, along with plant records and product data, are electronically submitted to a USDA grader stationed elsewhere in the United States.

The grader reviews this information and assigns the USDA Quality Grade and applicable carcass certification programs within 24 hours. The official grade is then sent back to the plant for application to the carcass.

This program is particularly beneficial for small and mid-sized operations, with a limit of 100 carcasses per week for grading. Once graded, plants can use this information for retail marketing and share carcass performance data with producers.

The US Cattlemen’s Association (USCA) has expressed strong support for this initiative. Patrick Robinette, USCA’s independent beef processing chairman and family owner of Micro Summit Processors, highlighted the significant cost reduction this program offers, dropping from an average of $410 per head to just $4.56 per head for grading services.

Chris Young, the executive director of the American Association of Meat Processors (AAMP), also praised the program for its potential to assist small processors in marketing their high-quality beef as Prime or Choice.

Ethan Lane, vice president of government affairs for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), emphasised the importance of USDA quality grades in the cattle supply chain and the opportunity this program presents for producers to gain more value from their products.

In 2023, AMS conducted a feasibility study of the remote grading process. The pilot will continue to gather data on costs and the level of in-person surveillance required to ensure consistency and integrity, with plans to expand testing and engage a broader range of beef packers.

The program is currently limited to domestic beef slaughter facilities under federal inspection and meets the eligibility criteria for USDA grading. This innovative approach by the USDA is set to open new doors for the beef industry, particularly benefiting smaller-scale operations.