Beef grading has been a vital marketing service provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) since the 1920s. Consumers, through retail, restaurant, and commercial food service buyers, have come to rely on USDA Prime, Choice, and Select as symbols of quality. Much of the U.S. beef supply chain depends on official USDA beef grades as the underlying basis for carcass value and for negotiating product price. Consequently, grading accuracy and consistency are highly important, especially as the industry transitions towards instrument grading. In an effort to improve the consistency and accuracy of beef carcass grade and factor assessment, the USDA has approved grading instruments to assist in determining the official quality and yield grades and in evaluating factors for certified branded beef programs. With significant contributions from the USDA, the Beef Checkoff, beef processing companies, cattle producers, technology providers and academia, significant progress in the use of instrumentation for the assessment of beef has been made in the last 30 years. The Beef Checkoff has served as a catalyst for the idea of instrument grading by supporting instrument research with investments exceeding $2.5 million in the past 10 years. “These technologies will strengthen true value-based marketing in beef,” says Glen Dolezal, chair of the beef industry’s Product Enhancement Committee. “By investing our beef checkoff dollars in this research, we are helping to ensure the consistency, repeatability and precision of our product, something both producers and consumers are demanding. It’s advantageous throughout the supply chain.” In 2005, the first video image analysis (VIA) system for instrument grading was approved by the USDA to augment yield grade application and in 2006, marbling assessment by VIA was approved. With the proven abilities of VIA instruments to assess beef carcasses for yield and quality traits, USDA has established a series of standards for the use of VIA technologies in current grading procedures. “USDA is aware of the opportunity to augment and improve subjective evaluations performed daily on a nationwide basis by field graders and have taken steps to ensure a seamless and transparent transition to instrument grading,” continues Dolezal. “However, this change will likely be introduced in an orderly fashion over time with proper training and understanding of the total process.” Checkoff funding is currently being used to implement existing technologies for evaluating quality grade and to investigate technologies for predicting beef tenderness.
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