A USDA pilot program is aiming to help cattle producers and meat processors access better markets through the USDA’s official beef quality grading and certification.

“Everybody understands that over the last few years we’ve made very significant investments both on the public and private side in expanding processing capacity, and that is great, so long as you also have the ability to market that product,” said Jennifer Porter, USDA Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) deputy administrator.

The pilot uses the Remote Grading Pilot for Beef (RGP), which was developed by USDA’s AMS. It operates remotely, so no matter where processing facilities are located, they can now have their beef USDA graded by utilizing the RGP.

“In 2023, they tested it with a small number of producers and found it worked. Now, we need to safeguard the technologies,” she said.

The RGP matches simple technology with data management and program oversight to allow a USDA grader to assess beef carcass characteristics and assign the official quality grade from a remote location.

Porter explained that the grading service is funded through user fees, so “we have to charge for our time.”

“Historically, that’s been pretty expensive for smaller operations that aren’t operating at the larger scales, and especially if those operations were in a location that didn’t happen to be close to one of our federal or state licensed graders,” she said.

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the new pilot during a panel discussion with livestock producers and independent meat processing business owners at the National Western Stock Show in Denver, Colo.

“On average, a beef carcass that grades as USDA Prime is valued at hundreds of dollars more than an ungraded carcass, but costs for this voluntary USDA service often prevents smaller scale processors and the farmers and ranchers they serve from using this valuable marketing tool,” Vilsack said. “This remote grading pilot opens the door for additional packers and processors to receive grading and certification services, allowing them to access new, better, and more diverse marketing opportunities.”

Consumers, as well as buyers and sellers of beef, rely on USDA quality grades, including Prime, Choice and Select, as the standardized way to indicate quality.

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Sarah Hernandez, with the AMS livestock and poultry program, explained the foundation of USDA’s meat grading program is USDA can act as an independent and unbiased third party.

“We can assess the quality of a product, and we do that uniformly on a national basis by applying the U.S. standards for grades,” she said.

In addition, Hernandez said USDA graders can also perform certification.

“We do this under the USDA certified meat programs, such as the Certified Angus Beef Program,” she said.

Under the pilot program, trained plant employees capture specific images of the live animal and beef carcass, and submit them electronically to a USDA grader stationed elsewhere in the U.S. That USDA grader reviews the images and accompanying plant records and product data, assigns the USDA quality grade and applicable carcass certification programs, and communicates the official grade back to the plant to be applied to the carcass.

Plants can then use this information in their retail marketing and transmit carcass performance information back to producers.

The RGP is limited to domestic beef slaughter facilities operating under federal inspection and producing product that meets the eligibility criteria for the USDA grading program.

Participants in the pilot receive official results from the USDA grader within 24 hours, allowing them to process and market their high-quality beef as USDA Prime, USDA Choice, or USDA Select, and/or to participate in approved Certified Meat Programs, such as Certified Angus Beef.

AMS oversight of the RGP activities maintains the integrity of the Meat Grading Service and USDA Grade.

Applicants must be domestic beef slaughter facilities operating under a federal grant of inspection.

Cattle industry groups National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) and U.S. Cattlemen’s Association (USCA) welcomed the news from USDA.

The USCA said, “Every cattle operation in the U.S. will now have the opportunity to market their beef as Certified Angus, Certified Hereford, or other breed marketing program. You will not have to surrender your cattle to a large packer that is approved for those programs, while they reap the benefits of the value-added margins.”

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