The U.S. Department of Agriculture has begun a pilot program that allows processors in rural areas to grade beef remotely, a cost-effective approach that can help small packers reach new markets.
In the program, trained plant employees can capture images of live animal and beef carcasses using their smartphones. The photos are then submitted to a website so USDA graders can review and assess remotely. The results are given within 24 hours.
Typically, USDA graders perform their services on-site at large beef packing plants, and transportation costs often prevent them from certifying meats at smaller locations. The remote grading pilot allows hundreds of federally inspected packers and processors across the country to participate and broaden their market reach.
The Remote Grading Pilot for Beef, developed by USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, builds on the agency’s efforts to increase market competition, create a fairer playing field for small- and mid-size producers and provide more options for marketing farm products.
“On average, a beef carcass that grades as USDA Prime is valued at hundreds of dollars more than an ungraded carcass,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement. However, costs for the service prevented processors and ranchers from getting their beef officially graded and certified as Prime, Choice or Select.
More than 90% of U.S. beef undergoes the grading process, according to the USDA, though certification services are “significantly underutilized” by small, independent processors. This is due in large part to transportation costs for in-person services, especially when there is a relatively small number of carcasses to be graded.
The remote pilot program eliminates those travel expenses, dramatically reducing the overall cost for independent beef packers.
“On my operation, the cost would have averaged $410 per head to receive grading services, which I would have never recouped,” Patrick Robinette, independent beef processing chairman for the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association, said in a statement. “The pilot program would reduce that cost to $4.56 per head.”
The cattlemen’s association worked with the USDA to provide technical guidance on the pilot program, presenting the initial concept in a policy resolution adopted in 2020.
Eligible packers can enroll to participate in the pilot program through AMS. Applicants must be domestic beef slaughter facilities operating under a federal grant of inspection. In addition to standard USDA grading, independent producers and processors can qualify for programs like Certified Angus Beef.
“Now, the producers I serve will be able to access value-added programs that were previously unavailable to them,” Robinette said.