Beef grading agency dealing with several key issues

Declining slaughter numbers, regulatory bottlenecks, and using X-ray technology to 
assess carcasses are among issues faced by the Canadian Beef Grading Agency

Adecline in the number of slaughter animals leads to a decline in the number of graded animals, which typically results in plant closures and belt tightening.

Such was the situation for the beef industry and grading in Canada in 2012. This scenario has been a bit unnerving for the self-employed graders contracted by the Canadian Beef Grading Agency (CBGA), who paid on a piecework basis.

According to 2012 data from federally inspected facilities in Canada, the CBGA graded 2.53 million head — a drop of 11 per cent from the five-year average from 2006 to 2010 of 2.85 million head. Unless our cow herd suddenly explodes and we retain and process more fed slaughter in Canada, this decrease will continue in 2013.

On the regulatory front

Accompanying the new Safe Food for Canadians Act, which received royal assent in 2012, is an extremely ambitious Canadian Food Inspection Agency agenda to modernize all the food regulations. This initiative generated proposals from the CBGA to facilitate the modernization of the Livestock and Poultry Carcass Grading Regulations. CBGA’s investigation of opportunities began with the development of an “options” discussion document on the future of these regulations. One proposed option received resounding support from industry: A proposal for a simplified regulatory framework and a separate industry grade standards document.

The ultimate benefit of this option would be to provide more responsiveness and industry input into any amendment of the standards. An example of the current lack of responsiveness is the joint industry proposal in 2011 to adopt U.S. yield classes and accompanying methodology. The minister of agriculture’s response was that any amendment must go through the established process involving the collection of information on the proposed amendment, the publication of a regulatory impact analysis statement, an opportunity for industry comment, and after the assessment of the comments, if positive, final publication and regulation.

Unfortunately, no activity on amending the regulations has taken place to date. CBGA has no illusions about the position of grading on the industry priority totem pole — it is very far from the limelight as the industry’s focus is on health and safety, animal care, and sustainability. However, grading is the preferred method for carcass settlement and it is critical to keep that method in synchronization with the value of a carcass in the marketplace.

However, the government’s reluctance to take action to address the request to change yield assessment in Canada may be a blessing in disguise. The perspective at the time of submission of the industry request was based on trade with the U.S. and opportunities for greater market value based on the Canadian Beef Advantage. Recent number crunching has come up with conflicting results and a second perspective.

The industry will ultimately be the judge of which yield avenue to pursue. Despite the inadequacies of the current three Canadian yield classes in identifying true value, do the five USDA yield classes and their accompanying 50-year-old algorithm reflect value any better? Perhaps the ALMA/BCRC project for measuring the Canadian Beef Advantage will reveal the truth. Unfortunately, that project is not scheduled to wrap up until 2015, so if the request to change the yield classes is addressed, industry may be putting the cart before the horse.

Measuring the Canadian Beef Advantage

Platform technology for rapid non–invasive carcass fat and lean predictions in beef carcasses is under development. This project, with CBGA as the figurehead project lead, is an assessment of lean yield in carcasses through X-ray technology. The objective is to ensure that yield equations reflect actual carcass value.

If this technology is successful in measuring yield without complete dissection, as has been required in the past, it will be of enormous value to industry to ensure yield assessment methods keep pace with the influence of management and genetics on carcass yield. The majority of funding for this project has come from ALMA but it is also supported by BCRC and in-kind contributions from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

Despite all the time, money and effort that have gone into the development of technology to facilitate or perhaps eventually replace graders, only one plant has embraced the use of technology as a grading tool. JBS Food Canada Inc., at Brooks, Alta., continues to maintain the requirements to use the e + v technology as a grading tool. Once a carcass has been assessed by a grader to meet the minimum characteristics for Canada A and higher grades, technology is used for marbling and yield assessment. All other plants in Canada still use the human grader for assessment of the marbling and yield.

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