30 November 2001

SHAKE-UP FOR GRADING

By Simon Wragg

A MAJOR shake-up to the way pigs are graded and valued could be on the horizon for UK producers, driven by the need for consistency. But who will be the winners and losers?

Despite the diatribe that is written on the gap between producers and consumers, we are all alike. Each party knows what it wants from a pig, how much it should cost and the end result should be consistent.

And it is consistency that is going to be the driver of potentially the biggest change in pig grading and payment the UK has known since the P2 backfat indicator was adopted.

Measuring backfat at the upper rib area to determine a pig carcass value was an appropriate assessment when the rind-on bacon trade was all important.

But times have changed. Most pork products are trimmed, so leanness is now a critical payment criteria. The majority of meat cuts must fit into a plastic tray or be cut to a specified joint size for todays catering and retail markets.

There are members of the meat trade who are dissatisfied with the current carcass grading system. Mark Haighton, pig development manager at Lincs-based pork processor Geo Adams, says there is good reason for change.

"From our customers point of view, leanness should be the basis for payment. Currently, we have to judge from experience what the primal joints of a carcass, with a certain cover of fat, will yield. But we need to be more objective.

"We need to be able to measure each of the primals, put a value of how suitable they are for our business and pay the producer on that basis."

Daleheads Doug Denny sums up the current grading process with the analogy that judging a pig on a P2 measurement is like looking at a room through a keyhole. "Ideally, you need to get inside the room itself and have a good look around," he says.

The British Pig Executives Mick Sloyan is also in agreement and he plans to review alternative grading and payment systems which may increase rewards for the modern genotype producer. "If a grading system can increase hit rate of carcasses meeting a processors spec by 5% there should be benefits for both sides."

BPEX, Dalehead and Geo Adams have recently been looking at carcass evaluation systems in use on the Continent. Current thinking is that ultrasound scanning – a way of looking inside a carcass without having to cut it open – could be a route forward.

Ultrasound systems – such as the Demark-manufactured Auto-Fom from SFK Technology – are used in the US and Germany where reviews have been positive.

According to Mr Denny, ultrasound has big benefits. "Being able to accurately measure primals for size, fat cover and leanness would remove most of the guess-work. It would allow us to buy exactly what were selling on to our customers."

Depending on a producers genotype and production system, payments could swing either way. BPEX is aware that change may benefit some producers, while others feel the pinch.

"It could mean redistribution of payments, but thats the way of life," agrees Mr Sloyan. "We cannot overlook the fact that such systems can drive out inefficiencies and, therefore, have the potential to generate a greater return for the right animals.

"The challenge for industry is to match the right pigs to the right outlet. If we can harness data from systems like AutoFom and feed it back into breeding and finishing programmes we can get nearer to achieving that goal."

In reality, the cost of systems such as AutoFom – priced at about £205,000 – is a barrier. Getting approval for its operation in the UK to calculate carcass payments could run into a five-figure sum, say processors.

One aspect of integrating new technology is clear; producers must be kept informed. "In Germany where ultrasound has been introduced for carcass grading and as the basis for payment, factories have openly admitted theyve run into difficulties by not bringing producers along with developments. "We cant allow that to happen here," says Mr Denny.

But producers will have to wait until the domestic pig market settles before any further moves are made towards change, suggest processors. Again, consistency – both in terms of the national kill and EU pricing – will determine progress. &#42

Ultrasound grading of carcasses using the Danish AutoFom system (pictured) could be the future basis of UK pig producer returns. But high system costs and industry instability may delay changes.

ULTRASOUND GRADING

&#8226 Leaness now important.

&#8226 High system costs.

&#8226 Keep producers informed.