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USDA announces changes to U.S. beef grade standards

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) announced this week that it is updating the voluntary U.S. Standards for Grades of Carcass Beef.

USDA said the update to the standards will provide companies using the USDA grading program with additional options – dentition or age documentation – to establish the maturity of animals and ensure that cattle 30 months old or less are included in the youngest maturity group recognized as "beef" (A maturity). Skeletal and muscular evidence will still be used to determine maturity for those animals over 30 months of age.

This change for voluntary beef grading activities will be implemented on Dec. 18, 2017.

Companies using the USDA voluntary grading program must do the following prior to Dec. 18, 2017:

1. Provide documentation to the AMS supervisor and graders describing how carcasses over 30 months of age are identified and segregated within the plant. AMS will review these procedures either during routine quality systems assessment (QSA) audits or during supervisory visits.

a. Plants with a QSA program (e.g., for export verification) will provide the applicable section from their quality manual that details this process.

b. Plants without a QSA program will document their process through a standard operating procedure or similar document.

2. Ensure that the AMS supervisor and graders are aware of how carcasses over 30 months of age are identified/marked. The carcasses must be identified in a manner that allows the AMS grader to easily see the identification when presented for grading.

On Dec. 18, companies may offer carcasses only for initial quality and/or yield grading, USDA said, adding that no carcasses shall be presented for grading that were held as regrades from the previous week.

National Cattlemen's Beef Assn. (NCBA) president Craig Uden released a statement in response to the newly announced revisions.

"Today's update to the beef standards will benefit U.S. beef producers in every segment of our industry. By basing carcass quality grades on the most current scientific data available, we will improve grading accuracy and ensure that producers are getting maximum value out of each head," he said, adding that the group is grateful to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and the USDA staff "for implementing this decision, which demonstrates their continued commitment to supporting American (cattle producers)."

NCBA said the changes announced were the result of a petition it had led.

According to NCBA, dentition is a method for measuring the age of cattle based on their teeth. Cattle with fewer than three incisors are classified as under 30 months of age; three or more incisors indicate that cattle are more than 30 months old.

"Prior to the change, a significant portion of cattle under 30 (months of age) were incorrectly deemed ineligible for USDA quality grades because of limitations in the process used to assess their age," NCBA said. "Dentition and/or documentation of actual age provides a more accurate assessment method. Ultimately, this will ensure that more carcasses are eligible for USDA quality grades and allow producers to maximize the value of each head."

A beef industry working group comprised of representatives from the cow/calf, feeder and packer segments conservatively estimated that incorrect classification of carcasses cost the industry nearly $60 million annually. Incorrectly classified carcasses were sold at an estimated discount of nearly $275 per head.