Grading is 'accurate and consistent'

IT is now just over three years since the 24 major Irish export approved beef plants, representing 90 per cent of the country’s kill, installed Video Imaging Analysis carcase grading.

It was an industry decision, taken in the knowledge that maintaining the status quo was not an option, and made more palatable by Government grant aid.

Farmers were initially hugely sceptical, but the technology is not even a talking point now.

Traditionally carried out by the Department of Agriculture, manual grading had always been free of charge, but there was a desire by the department to trim its costs and an initial suggestion was that abattoirs employ their own graders.

Plant operators were dubious about that, and would leave themselves open to accusations of bias.

Three VIA systems had been trialled by Teagasc in 1999 and the issue had been ‘on the agenda’ since then. The department eventually authorised German manufacturer E+V Technology’s VBS 2000 system, of which there are around 40 in use throughout Europe.

One of the early users of the technology in Ireland was the AIBP plant at Clones, Monaghan.

General manager George Mullan had an open mind on the subject but was aware of all the trial work done by Teagasc.

“There was a 40 per cent grant on the cost of the system which today probably costs around €150,000 and there is a running and service cost of €8-10,000 per annum, which we have absorbed,” said Mr Mullan. “As far as I am concerned, it is working well and we are happy with the accuracy of the system and importantly, its consistency.

“We have to perform a check on it every morning and if everything is not right, it will not operate. I know some farmers still believe we can ‘tweak’ the system, but I can tell you we cannot.

Carcase scores

“Right at the start people were complaining simply because it was new and was an ‘issue’ in the press. So we invited some of them into the factory and into the chill room to see the carcases for themselves and it was perfectly clear that in terms of carcase classification scores, they did not know what they were looking at anyway,” said Mr Mullan.

“I will say this, however. The system does reward young cattle with uniformity of fleshing, but that is good. It is the type of cattle we want and the type of cattle that make the best return for producers.

“At one time you might have seen a big, long older beast with a good back-end making a ‘U’ but it would not be a ‘U’ on this system.”

The VIA system recognises the sex of a beast – because it is programmed in at the beginning of the line – and grades accordingly.

At Clones, as in most plants, the system is installed after dressing and before the scales.

Factory records

Records of the grade and weight of each carcase are kept for four weeks by the factory – and that includes a photograph of the side. The system manufacturer retains records for two years.

“It can be useful in the event of a dispute and it is something you didn’t have with manual grading. However, I would never override the system’s classification of a particular carcase but remember, at the end of the day, I have the jurisdiction to pay a producer what I think is right in the event of an unclear grade,” said Mr Mullan.

Evidence of the general satisfaction with the VIA system among producers, said Mr Mullan, was the fact that very few now went into the plant to see their own animals graded. “And of course there is no chance of anyone ‘leaning’ on the grader.”

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