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Editorial: Grading beefs

Those seeking quick changes to grade standards will likely be disappointed

The stars seem finally to be aligned to revise the Canadian beef-grading system, but don’t hold your breath waiting for it to happen.

The last revision was in 1992 and a lot has changed since then. That in itself clearly has not been enough to force a change. The Canadian Beef Grading Agency (CBGA) has proposed changes since 2012, and it is still waiting.

The one thing that has not changed, however, is our need to stay in alignment with the U.S. market. So now that the United States Department of Agriculture is seeking public comment on possible revisions to its beef-grading standards, particularly the 50-year-old yield grade standard, plus a review of beef instrument grading, it seems only prudent to start thinking about sprucing up our own system.

Charlie Gracey couldn’t agree more and attempted to get things moving last month by distributing a discussion paper with his own proposals for change to the Canadian system. He has some experience with the topic.

As the manager of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association Gracey was involved in setting the 1972 grade standards designed to eliminate excessive fat from the beef supply, and in 1992 when marbling was reintroduced to the quality standard. He was also involved in creating the industry-driven Canadian Beef Grading Agency and the design of the grading ruler used to estimate carcass yield.

Today, he thinks the pendulum has once again swung too far toward the “fat” side of the ledger because marbling has become so identified with quality. As a result the trade stacks the deck to bring in more AAA carcasses and yield grades suffer which in turn reduces to real value of the carcass in terms of salable meat.

As evidence, he points to statistics from 1993 to 1997, when about 50 per cent of the AAA and Prime carcasses graded Y1. Since then the Y1 percentage has steadily dropped (particularly since 2006) down to 34 per cent in 2012.

Of course this varies with the demand for higher-marbled cattle through the year. We track the yield of all A grade carcasses every month on our market page if you are interested in following this trend. To August 11, 2012, 57 per cent of A carcasses graded AAA and Prime but only 20 per cent of those top “quality” carcasses graded Y1. To August 2 this year 58 per cent of the A carcasses are AAA and Prime and 24 per cent of them are Y1.

More marbling generally means lower yields, so these numbers seem to tell us all the advertising for triple and double A quality is working and the trade is paying premiums on AAA and Prime while easing up on discounts for lower yields to fill that demand. In part Gracey believes we got into this cycle because the packers don’t have much faith in the accuracy of yield numbers derived from a ruler.

The result, he says, is that carcasses are fatter and lower in lean meat content today than any time since the early 1970s. He doesn’t think it has to be that way. Based on his own research he knows there are cattle out there that can grade AAA, Y1. We just need a lot more of them.

Sounds like a win-win but to pull it off, Gracey says the industry has to be willing to change.

First, we need more accurate yield estimates. Adopting USDA’s five yield categories would be a start. Most of the industry wants this change and the CBGA has proposed it to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) but is still awaiting a decision.

Gracey would prefer widespread adoption of instrument grading which would supply exact yields rather than category averages. That technology exists and is approved for use in Canada but so far JBS in Brooks is the only plant using it to grade. Cargill uses the equipment for its own information but not for grading.

The grading information would also have to be shared so producers could identify and propagate the better bloodlines.

Finally, packers have to be willing to pay for both quality and yield. Producers do respond to incentives whether it be for lean carcasses or heavily marbled ones.

It seems to make sense, but so far neither producers nor the trade have shown much interest in changing the grading system, other than keeping it in step with the U.S.

So far, we haven’t been able to do even that because it takes so long to get regulatory changes through CFIA. Now the Americans are getting set to raise the bar again.

Under the Safe Food Act the CBGA was led to believe CFIA would retain authority over beef grading but pull the actual standards out of the regulations, so they could be adjusted faster to meet changing market conditions. The latest word is the standards will still require regulatory change .

Gracey’s paper, Beef Carcass Grading: The common language of the industry, is available here as a free download.

About the author

Editor

Gren Winslow is a past editor of Canadian Cattlemen.

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