That’s a question one of Canada’s biggest beef buyers is asking

The Canadian Beef Grading Agency (CBGA) will be discussing potential revisions to the grading protocol for Canadian beef when it meets in May. Claude Gravel, Costco Wholesale’s manager of fresh foods and the Canadian Council of Grocery Distributors’ representative on the CBGA board of directors, will be making a formal presentation and request for change related to a concern he has recently brought to the board’s attention.

Gravel feels there has been a slip in grading of Canadian beef — particularly in the Canada AAA grade — within the past 15 years or so. During his many walks through Costco’s warehouse case, sometimes he notices a lot of variance in marbling among the Canada AAA carcasses and sometimes there is no obvious difference in marbling between the low-end Canada AAA and high-end Canada AA carcasses. He says there should be a visual difference between Canada A, AA, and AAA so that buyers can see they’ve received what they’ve paid for.

At the same time, he notes that the percentage of carcasses grading Canada AAA has increased from about 17 per cent 15 years ago, to 47 per cent in recent years. The aim of the Canadian industry is to produce 55 to 60 per cent Canada AAA beef. In the back of his mind, Gravel can’t help but wonder if Canada is grading for the grade or grading for the program, the point being that if getting the grade is not controlled from the base, Canada AAA meat will not be of the quality it should.

To validate his observation pertaining to the inconsistency of marbling in the Canada AAA grade, he purchased various cuts and grades of beef from several stores in Ottawa. He asked his counterpart in the U. S. to do the same there and send pictures of his purchases. The minimum marbling standards for USDA Prime, Choice and Select are identical to those used in Canada for Canada Prime, Canada AAA and Canada AA respectively, yet the pictures of the USDA Choice cuts showed much more marbling than the Canada AAA cuts. Some of the USDA Select cuts even had more marbling than some of the Canada AAA beef sold under branded beef labels.

Gravel has shown the pictures to both Cindy Delaloye, the CBGA’s general manager, and Richard Robinson, national manager of traceability, grading and establishment registration with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). They suggested that the way to get the ball rolling was to take it to the CBGA board to see if there is general agreement.

“If retailers are in fact dissatisfied with the product they are receiving from Canadian packers, it is definitely a subject that should be addressed by the industry and the CBGA,” Delaloye says.

The packing plants don’t do their own grading. The CBGA provides this service on a cost-recovery basis according to the beef carcass grading standards established by the CFIA

There can be as much as 18 degrees difference in marbling between the two sides of a carcass. The degree of marbling also varies up and down the carcass

in the Livestock and Poultry Carcass Grading Regulations. A revision to the grading protocol would require consensus from all sectors of the industry (retailers, packers and producers) before it could be presented to the CFIA for consideration.

Marbling decreasing

In 1996, Canada changed to the American marbling standard, which does require less marbling than the previous Canadian standard. According to the CBGA website, the assessment of marbling is based on the average amount, size and distribution of fat particles or deposits in the rib eye. Canadian beef carcass grading utilizes only four of the nine recognized levels of marbling from the USDA marbling standards. Listed in order of increasing marbling content, the nine levels are: traces, slight, small, modest, moderate, slightly abundant, moderately abundant, abundant and very abundant. Canada uses trace as the minimum requirement for Canada A, slight as the minimum for Canada AA, small as the minimum for Canada AAA, and Canada Prime AAA must have slightly abundant marbling.

So, if both countries use the same standard, why is it that Canada’s AAA beef appears to have less marbling than USDA Choice?

In part, this can be explained by the growing number of branded beef programs, which require well-marbled beef. Delaloye estimates that the top two-thirds of the Canada AAA grade is being pulled out of the mix to meet the demand for the branded products, leaving the bottom third of the spectrum for buyers who don’t specify that they want high marbling. U. S. retailers don’t feel the pinch because there are far more packing plants south of the border than there are in Canada. Not only do U. S. retailers have greater access to the full spectrum of USDA Choice carcasses, but they have their pick of many plants for the type of product they require.

Gravel purchases Costco Canada’s beef from federally inspected plants in Canada. Traditionally, when buyers place a standard order for Canada AAA beef, they expect to get a mix of low-end to high-end Canada AAA carcasses — in other words, a blend that makes sense, Gravel explains. If buyers specify that they want only the best, they have to pay more for it even though it’s all graded Canada AAA. He confirms that he does get a better mix in the Canada AAA grade when he buys from plants that don’t supply a lot of branded beef programs.

Canada AAA carcasses increasing

CanFax statistics show that from January to August, 2008, about 50 per cent of carcasses in the West and 55 per cent of carcasses in the East graded Canada AAA. The percentages for Canada AA are slightly more than 45 per cent in the West and 40 per cent in the East.

Delaloye and Gravel acknowledge that Canadian producers have adjusted the genetic makeup of their herds as well as feeding protocols in response to consumer demand and premiums offered by Canadian packers for AAA carcasses. This would account for some of the improvement in the number of Canada AAAs in the herd population in recent years, Delaloye says.

Another contributing factor may be the grading protocol itself. “The Canadian protocol is to grade the best side of a carcass. This gives producers the benefit of the doubt because industry research shows that there can be as much as 18 degrees difference in marbling between the two sides of a carcass,” Delaloye explains. The degree of marbling also varies up and down the carcass and each carcass is graded at one point only. Therefore, it’s quite feasible that one side could grade Canada AAA with a marbling level of small 0 and the other side could grade Canada AA with a marbling level of slight 80.

Gravel adds that carcasses used to be graded after hanging for 24 hours. Now they’re graded after 48 hours. The longer meat sits in the cooler, the more apparent the marbling becomes, therefore, many of the carcasses that would have graded AA under the 24-hour protocol, may now be making the Canada AAA grade.

Graders have told him that the difference between a good Canada AA with a high level of marbling and a low-end Canada AAA with a small amount of marbling is basically a judgment call. Costco’s motto is “when in doubt, throw it out.” He feels that it should be the same with grading. When in doubt, a carcass should be thrown out of the Canada AAA grade, that is, it should be dropped to AA, rather than pushed up to AAA.

Options open for discussion

To nip this in the bud, he is suggesting that a grade representing the poorest side of the carcass be applied to the entire carcass to ensure that all beef stamped Canada AAA meets the minimum requirement of small marbling. Another option may be to put more of the available marbling levels into use and shuffle the requirements for each grade. For example, the base for Canada AAA could be modest marbling, the minimum for Canada AA could be small marbling, and the minimum for Canada A could become slight marbling. Alternatively, creating a new AAAA grade for the branded programs would put a stop to the cherry picking off the top end of the Canada AAA carcasses. Though some of these suggestions stray from Canada’s goal of maintaining grade equivalency with the U. S., as it stands, grade equivalency doesn’t seem to be translating into quality equivalency.

Delaloye agrees there’s no black-and-white solution. Maybe it requires a combination of tactics, such as grading both sides of the carcass and putting each into its appropriate grade, looking for new technologies that would improve the grading procedure, or better communicating the message that branded programs provide more consistency.

The crux of the matter is that some of the suggestions would result in fewer carcasses making the Canada AAA grade. This is a major concern for producers and packers because it would reduce their income and the volume of Canada AAAs in the slaughter mix. On the flip side, Canadian producers and packers can’t afford to lose retailer confidence in their products.

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