Making the Grade

How instrument grading technology has turned the beef industry around

This is the story of how Colorado State helped U.S. beef producers reverse a 23-year trend of declining market share. Certainly, a paradigm shift toward satisfying consumer demand helped. And so did a new strategic focus on increased spending in instrument grading technology research. But the catalyst, says animal sciences Associate Professor Keith Belk, was the rather serendipitous partnerships and chain of events that led to a better way to evaluate beef carcasses.
One of the biggest challenges for beef producers and processors is accurately predicting the yield of individual carcasses. Knowing the cutability – how many high-value and low-value cuts a carcass contains – is essential to determining value and pricing. In 1995, when Belk joined Colorado State's Meat Science Program, he became aware of VIAscan™, a beef-carcass scanning system under development in Australia. A noninvasive instrument that could precisely measure cutability could be a tremendous asset to beef packers.

Belk approached the beef industry, which also became excited about the possibilities of VIAscan™. and provided funding for Colorado State to evaluate the Australian technology for use in U.S. carcass evaluation.

Around the same time, a Canadian group had developed a similar technology called CVS. Belk and his colleagues, animal sciences Professors Gary Smith and Daryl Tatum, researched and tested both systems with successful results.

"Now we had two technologies that worked," says Belk. Both could quickly and accurately evaluate the cutability of a carcass.

In February 2001, the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service approved the instruments for USDA graders to use in applying official U.S. Yield Grades to beef carcasses. Beef graders, who on average grade 450 carcasses an hour, now have, for the first time, technology to assist them in determining yield.

But there's another feature that determines the value of a carcass, Belk continues, and that is how well the consumer will like the beef. How tender will it be? How flavorful? How juicy? Beef producers refer to these qualities as palatability. By the end of 1999, no system existed that could predict how good the beef would taste.

Around that time, says Belk, the concept of quality management became prevalent, and beef producers realized they could improve sales if they catered to consumers' preferences, rather than producing various beef products and hoping someone would buy them. The grading technology Colorado State University was working on was instrumental to everything the industry was trying to do to improve its market share.

Duane Wulf, a graduate student in the Meat Science Program, who had been measuring carcasses using a hand-held color meter, had found correlations between color measurements and the eating quality of beef. Armed with this knowledge, Belk contacted Hunter Labs, a video-imaging company in Virginia, to see if they could build a prototype instrument that could identify individual carcasses and capture quality measures, such as lean meat, fat, and marbling. Again the beef industry funded the research. Again the instrument produced the desired results.

Now it was time to make a product that would work commercially. Colorado State University's Research Foundation initiated the patent process and gave exclusive rights to a Hunter Labs subsidiary called SmartMV. A new branded-beef start-up company in Texas – Nolan Ryan's Tender Aged Beef – helped fund and served as the testing site for developing a commercial model. "There's a big difference between a prototype and a machine that's operating accurately at high speed in a beef-packing plant day in and day out," says Belk.

In early 2001, after a year of testing and tweaking, the BeefCam Tenderness Evaluation System was born. It was the first commercially available machine anywhere in the world that could evaluate the eating quality of beef. Belk attributes BeefCam's development to a whole host of people, including graduate students Rob Cannell, Aaron Wyle, and Derek Vote.

Now instruments that measure cutability can be interfaced with BeefCam and other tools to produce customized equipment for specific needs. The technology provides cattle producers with detailed information on carcasses. Producers then can look at their feedlot operations and adjust management practices to optimize yield and quality.

"For the last 2 1/2 years, as the result of things we've been doing in the beef industry for 10 years, beef demand is back up," says Belk. "There are a lot of reasons for that, but a big part is that these technologies have helped to improve the eating quality of beef."