Kay’s Cuts: The pitfalls of new beef industry technologies

Beef Central, by Steve Kay, Cattle Buyers Weekly, 08 November 2017

INTRODUCING new technologies into the beef industry, whether in Australia or the US, can be fraught with difficulties.

Potential users have to be convinced the technologies will financially benefit them, are worth investing in, and that they work. Federal or national government officials have to sign-off on the technologies and monitor them to make sure they are being properly used and, in some cases, are accurate.

Growth promotants developed for use in the US cattle feeding industry took years to be approved. Now they are extensively used and are seen as crucial to producing more beef per animal.

But a negative consequence is that US beef is shut out of important export markets, notably China and the European Union (since 1986), because of their use.

US beef is going to China, but at a trickle. Just 800 tonnes was shipped in the first 125 days after China opened its market. That’s because China requires that beef be ‘natural’, i.e. produced without the use of implants or ractopamine. The latter involves Optaflexx, a feed supplement widely used in US cattle feeding.

Optaflexx was for some years used in tandem with another feed supplement, Zilmax. Pharmaceutical giant Merck had spent years and many millions of dollars developing and testing Zilmax on tens of thousands of cattle.

Cattle feeders started using it enthusiastically as it helped produce even greater growth rates than Optaflexx. But reports started appearing that Zilmax was causing ‘well-being’ issues with grainfed cattle. These issues showed up at processing plants and packers hastily said they would no longer buy cattle that had received Zilmax. This was the death knell for that technology.

At the beef processing level, many new technologies have been introduced into US plants over the past 25 years. The emergence of the deadly E. coli O156:H7 pathogen in 1993 propelled the industry to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on new food safety intervention technologies, such as steam cabinets to sterilise carcases.

The US’s first BSE case in late 2003 meant more technology had to be introduced, in part to separate specified risk material from carcases and make sure it did not enter the food or feed supply.

18 plants adopt instrument-based grading

Within a US grainfed beef plant, one of the most important tasks is the quality grading of carcases. Whether a carcase grades USDA Prime, Choice, Select or No Roll (no grade) is critical to the bottom line of both packers and producers.

USDA for years has used its manual graders in plants to visually examine and apply grades to every carcase by measuring the degree of marbling in the 12th ribeye. It does that to this day.

However, the industry some years ago felt this subjective method should at least be supplemented by a more objective system using vision technology (grading cameras). Cameras were developed, thoroughly tested and then gradually introduced.

Eighteen US grainfed beef plants currently have cameras installed to provide a second means by which to determine a carcase’s quality grade.

Major packers Tyson Foods, Cargill and National Beef Packing this past June believed they were taking the next step in the use of cameras when they started installing the next generation of vision-based grading in nine plants. The updated version replaced LED-lit cameras with digital cameras. USDA had reviewed and approved this version.

The three packers who started using the new cameras believed they would do an even more accurate job in assessing quality grades.

However, USDA graders after several weeks of the cameras’ use determined that the new cameras were not as accurate as USDA thought they would be. Graders began over-riding the cameras’ results, as they sometimes did with the older cameras. USDA had anticipated the new technology would perform like its predecessor and would give the same results. But it says the new cameras led to slightly higher grading percentages.

Companies left stunned and confused

USDA took action on October 27, leaving the three companies somewhat stunned and confused. It ordered them to make an adjustment to their new cameras. USDA took this action after determining that that the new technology did not perform as anticipated in a production setting, USDA official Jennifer Porter told me.

USDA graders will continue to exercise their ability to override a grade call made by any camera that they believe is not accurate, she says. USDA will also closely monitor a grading camera’s performance to ensure it serves as a reliable aid in assigning the final grade.

Packers however told me the new technology and its software’s calibration were correct and accurate, and some say it did not lead to higher grading percentages.

One packer told me its percentages declined. Another packer, though, said USDA’s directive could mean a five percentage point decline in carcases grading USDA Choice and a 25pc decline in the number of carcases grading Prime. Others say this won’t occur and it seemed like the packer was trying to talk up prices for certain cuts.

One thing is clear. The grading percentages for Prime and Choice this year have closely followed their five-year seasonal pattern, albeit at slightly higher levels that probably have little to do with the new technology.

A second point is that USDA graders continue to quality grade every carcase. One of the three packers told me it has for now stopped using all cameras, and is relying solely on USDA graders to determine quality grade. Others have likely followed suit.

US packers still have the right, if they don’t like a grader’s initial assessment, to rail off a carcase and present it for re-grading the next day. The irony is that instrument grading was introduced in part to reduce this practice. USDA’s action might have produced a storm in a teacup, but it has cast doubts over the processing industry’s latest attempt to introduce new grading technology.