We have the technology, but now the question becomes how to put it to its best use.
In the spring of 2008 the board of directors of the Canadian Beef Grading Agency (CBGA) set an admirable goal to have technology and objective measurement in place of today’s human and subjective graders by the year 2013.
“We have the technology.” For those of you old enough to remember that line from the TV series the “Six Million Dollar Man.” There is technology to assess certain aspects of our existing grading regulations (CVS – computer vision system), and this technology has met all the requirements and was approved for use as a grading tool in Canada in 1999. Please note: significant funds were invested by the cattlemen, the packers, and the CBGA to achieve this approval.
Unfortunately no packer stepped up to the plate to request its use as a grading tool. It is worthwhile to note that grading is voluntary. It is a marketing tool that is recognized in the industry, and therefore utilized by the industry.
Now, fast forward to 2010, and a new technology (E plus V) is on the horizon and going through the approval process. Again, this process demands significant investment by all parties concerned. Will the industry voluntarily adopt the use of this new technology if and when it is approved?
For 15 years the Canadian Beef Grading Agency has provided the private, not-for-profit delivery of beef, bison and veal carcass grading under the ever-watchful eye of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. We will continue to do so until more objective and precise grade assessment can take our place, or when industry determines that an independent third party is no longer required to help establish value for each carcass.
There is no question that the use of technology would remove the human element from grading. This, in turn, should increase the consistency of grading across the country, if “all other factors” remain equal. It is all those other factors that have the potential to influence the grade outcome, even with the use of technology. The list of all other factors starts at the cow-calf operation and continues through to the carcass on the rail. Genetics play an enormous role in the end product, but genetic potential is not realized unless management from pre-weaning, to backgrounding, to finishing, to the slaughterhouse is focused on the outcome of a quality carcass.
U. S. YIELD AND GRADE DECOUPLED
We have the technology, but now the question becomes how to put it to its best use. And how will expectations match up with reality? If we look at American utilization of technology we can see some of the direction. Six U. S. plants have switched to official quality grading utilizing the camera(s). Please note, it is official quality grading. In the U. S., unlike Canada, quality and yield grade are decoupled. That is, the official quality grade will be overseen by USDA but the yield grade has now become a contractual arrangement between the packer and the supplier and is no longer considered officially delivered by USDA.
Why this direction? Perhaps so that settlement grids can be adjusted more readily based on market demand or perhaps so the yield information is no longer captured outside the final owner and the packer, one can only speculate.
The Six Million Dollar Man was equipped with a bionic arm, two bionic legs, and a bionic eye that made him a superhero to protect America. Technology has the same opportunity to protect the integrity of the Canadian beef industry with unequalled consistency and quality for our meat products. It will provide the level playing field for marketing and competition which has always been an underlying objective of the Canadian Beef Grading Agency.
CAN WE AFFORD IT?
Now for the provisos, or the conditions for the use of technology. Assuming the technology is approved, who will be able to afford it, install it, and use it as a grading tool?
The computer module for the current camera version looks a bit like a stainless steel telephone booth. The carcasses must pass by the booth, and the camera operator must wield the camera into position and take a picture of the exposed rib eye. Carcasses only pass by a grading stand in four of the 60-plus establishments where we currently provide grading service in Canada. Arguably those four establishments do grade the most of our product so should we be concerned?
If the industry is serious about a level playing field the answer is yes.
The capability to design and produce smaller, more portable units must exist, but a shrewd manufacturer would look for research and development financing and final return on investment. Will this grading technology be affordable to all establishments?
A cost/benefit analysis would have to incorporate not just the cost of technology but the cost of the tracking systems required to utilize the technology. Who will be able to afford it?
Finally there remains that ever-present expectation that technology will automatically deliver carcass information throughout the production chain. Radio frequency identification of the cattle coming to slaughter has certainly opened a window of opportunity for this information transfer, but all participants must learn to share… and you know how well all sectors of the beef industry get along!