Using technology to get a fairer meat price

The British meat processing industry, as a whole, appears in no rush to embrace Video Imaging Analysis systems to replace the human element in carcase grading and payment. In this special three-page report, Howard Walsh investigates.

Powys livestock farmer and 2006 Nuffield Farming Scholar John Yeomans believes that globally the UK is lagging behind in embracing technology for deadweight grading and the basis for producer payments.

Under the current UK grid pricing systems, he argues, stock of the required fat class are subsidising over-fat animals – penalties for over-fatness do not sufficiently reflect the resulting costs and losses.

Mr Yeomans has, since 1997, always used recorded bulls and rams in his own farm business near Newtown, along with back fat and muscle scanning on lambs in his genetic improvement programme.

The net result is that Yeomans lambs provide the abattoir with more lean meat per kilogram of carcase than a few years ago – but the present subjective grading and payments system does not deliver the due rewards, he feels.

“New technological developments like video imaging analysis systems may now provide the means not only to overcome the above concerns, but may also provide the basis for a ‘value-based marketing system' for the UK beef and sheep sector,” says Mr Yeomans in his Nuffield report.

Some grading systems, he notes, assess meat eating quality as well as carcase quality and yield.

The Meat Standards Australia beef grading system, for example, he says links rib fat depth, colour, marbling, eye muscle area, ultimate pH (5.3-5.7) and breed to gives a more ‘all round' picture of carcase, meat and eating quality.

“Work is also being carried out at the Clay Centre in Nebraska looking at marbling and maturity in beef using infrared assessment to look at the meat fibres to judge tenderness and meat eating quality.

Yield payments

“Probably the most exciting discovery of my travels was the use of X-ray scanning on the slaughter line. This system is linked to robotic arms for further carcase dressing and cutting while still achieving high line speeds of 600-plus carcases/hour.”

Mr Yeomans reports further developments should be able to ‘see through' the meat to identify animals with increased muscling.

Almost all the plants he visited during his scholarship were using or trialling Video Imaging Analysis.

“I was told that the best producers could not wait to move over to meat yield payments.

“One ‘sheep only' plant I visited had been paying on primal meat yield for around six years.”

Mr Yeomans discovered the big players in the New Zealand meat industry were also looking at, trialling, or already using new methods of beef and lamb carcase classification in an effort to get the most from the carcase and give a truer indication of its worth to the farmer and the plant.

In the UK, Mr Yeomans found supermarkets mainly expressed some degree of interest in new methods of carcase grading – the most enthusiastic being Asda, which felt the sooner producers were paid on meat yield, the better off the supermarket, its supplying abattoirs and, in turn, the supplying farmers would be.

Out-of-date system

“The EUROP grid is now surely out-dated. The EU has moved on, and farming and livestock production systems have changed,” said Mr Yeomans.

“In addition, sectors of the industry have embraced genetic improvements of carcase quality in both sheep and beef cattle, but are currently not being rewarded adequately for such investments.

“Given that VIA is based on objective measurements, how realistic is it to calibrate it against the EUROP grid system which itself is subjective and imprecise?” he questions.

But Mr Yeomans' conclusion is that, due to the nature of the meat industry in the UK, it is unlikely, without legislation, that all beef and lamb slaughter plants would move forward together to introduce a grading system based on meat yield.

Carcase classification system

THE current carcase classification system used in the UK for sheep and beef is entirely subjective and this leads to mistrust from farmers to abattoirs and supermarkets and back again, says Nuffield Farming Scholar John Yeomans.

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