Pilot program opens doors for small and mid-sized beef processors

The USDA has launched a pilot program to increase accessibility and affordability of carcass quality grading for small and mid-sized beef processors. 

Patrick Robinette of North Carolina, chairman of the independent beef processing committee for the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association, says this brings quality grading for beef into the modern era.  “Through the program, we’ll be able to use cloud and photo technology and apply it to being able to put a grade on a label for beef,” he says.

The Remote Grading Pilot for Beef program allows processors to take a picture of the ribeye loin and upload it from their phone to a secure cloud vault.  Within 24 hours, a trained USDA grader will review the image and assign a quality grade – like prime, choice, or select.  The program can only be used by small and mid-sized processors and is limited to 100 carcasses weekly.

He tells Brownfield this is a game changer for producers who were previously unable to access value-added programs. “It is going to remove cattle out of the Big 4 system,” he says. “They’re able to then create their own program with their own grade and they’re going to be able to play in the same marketplace as the Big 4. They’re not the only players in town anymore.”

Robinette says USDA quality grades are recognized by consumers.  “This is huge for your independent producers who are direct marketing their beef,” he says. “We have removed the barriers of the questions of quality to the consumer with this.”

With the ribeye grid device that will be provided to participating facilities, he says independent producers and processors can also qualify for programs like Certified Angus Beef.

The Remote Grading Pilot for Beef is limited to domestic beef slaughter facilities operating under federal inspection and producing product that meets the eligibility criteria for the USDA grading program.

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association also welcomed the announcement. 

The pilot will build on lessons learned during AMS’ feasibility study of a “remote grading” process conducted during the second half of 2023. AMS will expand its testing by engaging a larger and more diverse number of beef packers to participate in the development of this procedure. Through the 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 innovative service option as part of the USDA Quality Grading Service.

AUDIO: Patrick Robinette, U.S. Cattlemen’s Association

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