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Computer Grading Comes Around Again – for Aug. 9, 2010

The Canadian beef industry is one step closer to having offi- cial access to the latest technology in grading. Following extensive tests of the e+* Technology GmbH’s camera grading instrument, Wayne Robertson, the Agriculture Canada meat quality biologist at the Lacombe Research Centre, has recommended that it be approved for grading beef in Canada. His report is now in the hands of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), which is expected to make a decision this summer.

The German-made e+* visual grading system is the current gold standard for this technology. It has already been approved in the U. S., and is installed in at least 20 large packing plants, says Mark Klassen, director of technical services for the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association (CCA). The CCA has been instrumental in moving the approval process along in Canada by working with the manufacturer to secure equipment for Robertson’s test and applying for funding for the project from the Alberta Meat and Livestock Agency to determine how the e+* technology could be made to work in Canada’s beef-grading system.

CCA has long been a proponent of computer-assisted grading. In fact, it was a pioneer and world leader in developing and introducing the technology. The CCA, Canadian Meat Council (CMC) and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada developed the Computer Vision System (CVS), which was approved for use as a grading tool in Canada in 1999. However, commercial adoption of this cutting- edge technology was minimal. Now, a decade later, instrument grading has become a worldwide trend with the U. S., Europe and other countries moving to camera grading.

“The CCA has been involved in the effort for a long time because we think it’s beneficial for producers,” Klassen explains. “The advantage of camera-assisted grading is that the instrument can take many measurements in a very short time period and offers the potential for greater accuracy and precision. A grader typically has about 15 seconds to evaluate a carcass on a moving rail. With experience, a grader learns how to visually estimate measurements without the time-consuming process of using a yield ruler. This procedure works well with Canada’s current three-yield grade system, but actual measurements will be needed to provide the industry with precise lean yield percentages for individual carcasses.”

Another plus is that the carcass information is captured electronically so it can be stored and further analysed by the packing plant and producers. The CCA is preparing a home for camera vision grading measurements and other carcass information on the Beef InfoXchange System database, he adds.

Precise individual carcass evaluation could benefit breeders in making genetic improvements, feedlots with fine-tuning their feeding regimes, and packers with their sorts to meet customer specifications.

The industry is exploring further possibilities to expand the capability of the e+* rib-eye camera or pair it with other computer technologies, such as a whole (hot) carcass camera to enhance yield prediction for youthful carcasses. The whole carcass camera would also be a useful tool for measuring cow carcasses to get maximum utilization of mature animals.

The CCA is examining potential ways in which computer vision grading might be made less expensive and more operationally feasible for small plants. Though graders do have more time to evaluate the marbling and measure yield with the yield ruler when grading hanging carcasses at a small plant compared to graders working a moving rail, the ideal situation would be for every plant to have access to a camera for grading, says Klassen.

The e+* instrument is a stationary model designed for plants with moving rails. At the moment, there are only three of those in Canada — XL Beef at Brooks and Cargill at High River and Guelph, all of which have installed e+* cameras.

“Guarded optimism with a good strategy for using it,” is how CMC president Brian Read sums up the viewpoint of the organization that represents the meat-packing and -processing industry. “We support technology and will continue to work with the three big plants in Canada. The main concern is whether camera grading will be accepted by trade partners,” he explains.

The e+* camera is more acceptable than the original CVS camera because it provides more detail. To go beyond measuring the rib-eye and fat with the camera, the industry knows it will have to get a clean screen behind the carcass for a clear picture of the whole carcass. Portability, so graders can haul a device from plant to plant, is another challenge the CMC is working to address in advancing of the technology being used for grading in Canada.

The Canadian Beef Grading Agency (CBGA) was established by the beef industry as a private non-profit corporation to take over grading services from the federal government in 1996. The directors represent all sectors of the beef industry.

The CBGA believes the e+* technology represents a fantastic opportunity for the beef industry and fully supports its adoption into Canada’s beef-grading system. After receiving Robertson’s evaluation, the CBGA submitted a letter of support for the instrument to Dr. Martin Appelt, the CFIA’s national manager of policy development for the meat division.

When the CFIA approves of any new type of equipment for grading, the plants establish how it will be used on a day-to- day basis in their facilities, while adhering to the regulations laid out by the CFIA. The CFIA inspects the setup to ensure that everything has been done correctly. The CBGA’s responsibility is to see that the plant follows the established procedure, explains CBGA general manager Cindy Delaloye.

Approval of the e+* instrument for grading wouldn’t eliminate the need for graders. “The machine only measures yield and marbling,” Delaloye explains. “The CBGA grader would look at other grade factors — the colour of the fat and meat, conformation of the animal and age based on ossification.” The grader would also ensure the integrity of the camera images and grades. If, for example, a piece of external fat were to get under the camera and obviously distort the results, the grader would override the instrument’s assessment or request another image to ensure an accurate assessment.

Grading itself is voluntary and it may be used as a basis for price settlement, Delaloye explains. Therefore, use of the e+* camera, if approved by the CFIA, would be up to the plant management, as would paying producers based on grades generated by the camera. Settlement is between the packer and the producer.

The big three plants with moving rails already use this technology for in-house sorting of cuts, and can share that information with suppliers if they so choose, or pay producers for sought-after carcass characteristics identified by the camera. In essence, CFIA approval only verifies that the camera does what it says it does within the Canadian grading system, paving the way for it to be recognized by trading partners.

Delaloye allows that approval of e+* technology would essentially create a two-tiered grading system, with manual grading at small plants and instrument grading at large ones. But she says that would be manageable as long as the camera and the graders are measuring the same parameters for marbling and yield as laid out in the regulations.

Her main concern arises out of what occurred in the U. S. after the USDA officially approved the use of e+* instruments for grading in the spring of 2009. Within a year, 26 plants had installed the new technology. As of May, at least 17 of those plants had been approved and nine were using the camera to pay producers on USDA quality (marbling) grades. However, some have opted not to use the USDA standards for yield grade and have made arrangements with producers to settle payment based on an instrument-generated yield no longer under the scrutiny of the USDA. An agreement between a packer and a producer voids the necessity for third-party (USDA) observation.

“In Canada, yield and quality grade go hand in hand,” Delaloye explains. “In the U. S., they are decoupled, meaning plants can do one or the other or both. To decouple in Canada would require a regulatory amendment.”

She is bringing this to the attention of the industry sooner rather than later for consideration. In Canada, packers can and do make agreements with suppliers apart from grading — the grid, for example. However, the grid is still based on federal grading standards, which are the same right across the country. It is feasible that settlement could be based on something other than the Canada quality and yield grades. Her question is, “If packers each go their own direction, what will happen to price discovery?”

To put it into perspective, one has to think back to the reason behind establishing a grading system in the first place. It is intended to place carcasses into groups of uniform quality, yield and value to facilitate marketing and production decisions and to ensure greater consistency and predictability of the eating quality for consumers. (see www.beefgradingagency.ca)

CARGILL

Cargill Food Solutions at High River, Alta., has been using camera-assisted grading for in-house purposes for a number of years now.

“It’s all about checks and balances,” says cooler manager Chris Watson, who could have carcasses from as many as 6,300 head in the hotbox and another 2,000 head in the cooler at any one time. The number of steps in the process and the number of people who work hard each day to put beef on consumers’ plates is mind boggling. Some 2,000 are employed at this one plant alone, which processes 4,400 head per day at a line speed of 320 head per hour, while the fabrication floor handles another 365 head per hour.

Accountability across the facility is a priority for the company. The CFIA inspectors are responsible for food safety aspects and the plant is responsible for quality assurance. Audits are carried out throughout each day. The company’s meat scientist routinely observes day-to-day operations with an eye on little things that could have an impact or be improved.

The e+* camera, stationed just down the line from the CBGA grader, is one of the many checks and balances, Watson says. If there is a discrepancy between the grader’s grade and the e+* results, the carcass can be detoured back past the grading stand and re-presented to the grader and a second e+* image can be taken if necessary. Small things such as the height of the snipping or the slant of the ribbing where the rib-eye and backfat are measured can be reasons for the discrepancy. The grader’s decision is final.

Watson also views the camera as one of the tools that help the company be successful. The images can be used to fine-tune the sorts and help ensure that the beef meets product requirements. All of the camera images are stored on the computer and can be retrieved at any time to back the grader’s grade.

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