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USDA launches a remote beef grading pilot program 
 
By DOUG SCHMITZ
Iowa Correspondent

DENVER, Colo. – The USDA recently launched a remote grading pilot program for beef that will allow a USDA meat grader to assign grades from a remote location, increasing the grading options available to producers who sell into smaller, local processing plants.
According to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, “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 announced the new remote grading pilot program during a panelist discussion with livestock producers and independent meat-processing business owners in conjunction with the National Western Stock Show, held recently in Denver, Colo.
Developed by the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, the remote grading pilot program matches simple technology with robust 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, reducing costs and location as barriers to participation.
While over 90 percent of America’s fed beef supply is officially USDA-graded, most users are large beef packing operations, the agency said.
Until recently, the agency said, its meat grading and certification services are significantly underutilized by small, independent processors, due in large part to the expense of paying for a highly-trained USDA grader to travel to their facility to perform service in-person for a relatively small number of cattle that may not require a full day of the graders’ work.
Patrick Robinette, U.S. Cattlemens Association independent beef processing chair, and president and CEO of Harris-Robinette Farms in Pinetops, N.C., said before the USDA’s pilot program. “On my operation, the cost would have averaged $410 per head to receive grading services, which I would have never recouped,” he said. “The pilot program would reduce that cost to $4.56 per head.”
The program is specified for use by small- and mid-sized operations only, limiting the number of carcasses a processor can present for grading to 100 per week.
“Remote grading pilot program participants submit still images of the carcass beef – and still or video images of the live cattle, when required – to the USDA through a secure, digital file-sharing platform, USDA Cloud Vault,” according to a member of the USDA Press Office in a statement to Farm World. 
“Highly-trained USDA meat graders throughout the country receive the image files, assess the information, including the data and metadata for the images, and relay the grading and certification results back to the participant within 24 hours.” 
Through the pilot program, the Agricultural Marketing Service will gather additional information on actual cost, and the level of in-person surveillance needed to ensure program consistency and integrity to formalize this innovative service option as part of the USDA Quality Grading Service.
The program is limited to domestic beef slaughter facilities operating under federal inspection and producing product that meets the eligibility criteria for the USDA grading program, the agency added.
The USDA Press Office said applicants must contact the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service Livestock and Poultry Program for an initial consultation before applying for meat grading service.
Once approved for service, the Agricultural Marketing Service Livestock and Poultry Program conducts an initial site visit to review the program requirements and procedures, relevant plant standard operating procedures, and complete the USDA Grading Plant Survey. Once the survey is completed, the participant may begin submitting product for remote grading.
Interested participants can review the information provided on the USDA website: www.ams.usda.gov/rgpbeef, including the ‘Getting Started’ guide.
1/30/2024