Carcass grading goes automatic

Carcass grading is a bone of contention for many beef finishers, so could automated grading remove any room for doubt? One abattoir group believes so.

In a world of ever-increasing automation, when you can even pay for your weekly shopping without the intervention of a human, the idea that every carcass in every abattoir needs to be graded by a human is something of an anomaly.

After all, while every grader is fully trained and working to the same brief, they are all different people with their own interpretation of how any particular carcass looks. And, of course, it is all done by eye.

So, the move by ABP to switch to video image analysis (VIA) grading should be seen by most beef farmers as a welcome move. After all, carcasses going through their plants will next year be graded independently and objectively by a machine, with no human involvement.

That, says ABP’s livestock strategy manager Stuart Roberts, will remove any real or perceived human error from carcass grading.

“Every carcass will be graded by VIA and a permanent record will then be kept of how every carcass looked at the point of grading.”

On top of those obvious benefits, it will provide a new basis for valuing carcasses, he says. “We will, over time, be able to introduce payment mechanisms which reward carcasses that suit different markets.”

In a recent trial at ABP Perth, the VIA grader identified a range in the amount of strip loin in carcasses of 1.8-2.67% of total carcass weight (see table).

“This might not sound much, but what it means is there is over 40% more strip loin in some carcasses than others. Human grading would never pick up this difference, which could be worth as much as £50 on the carcass.”

How does automated grading work?

In simple terms, the machine takes a single photograph of one side of every carcass and then analyses the photograph in a number of ways.

The first side of each carcass is the one which is assessed, with it hung against a blue background. A pair of projectors then illuminate it in a Venetian-blind effect, with alternating strips of light and dark. It is these lines which then allow the analysis to be made.

“The contours of the carcass are analysed to assess its conformation on a standard EUROP classification. The different coloured lines allow the computer to assess the depth of the carcass away from the solid background.”

“Fat class is then determined from the same image by comparing the amount of red (flesh) and white (fat) in the image,”

“The program classifies carcasses into one of 15 brackets and these scores are then translated into a conformation score on the current EUROP scale. Fat class is also given on the existing one to five scale.”

However, this classification of the existing scales is really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the capabilities of VIA, explains Mr Roberts.

“First, it removes the doubt from the producer’s mind. And, by keeping a permanent record of every carcass and how it graded, we can show them exactly why any particular carcass graded the way it did. Anyone wondering why their cattle graded as they did will be able to get a full understanding of their carcasses.

“Second and, in the long-term, more importantly, the move to VIA allows every carcass to be assessed for the value of the primal cuts contained within it. VIA is able to assess the yield of saleable meat from each carcass or from each primal cut of the carcass. So, producers could be paid on the relative value of each component part of the carcass.”

Not that ABP has any immediate plans to go down this route. “But it does give us an opportunity to reward producers providing cattle that suit the current market. The EUROP classification was devised to classify carcasses best suited to intervention chillers, not for retail cuts.

“With VIA, we can assess the standard EUROP classification, but it can also tell us how much strip loin, topside, silverside, forequarter and thick flank there is in a particular carcass. And it can give a prediction for the total meat yield in a carcass.”

Using Via information on the farm

ABP will then be able to pass this information back to producers and potentially shape the direction of their breeding strategies. “It gives us the opportunity to say that what we’ve rewarded producers for in the past may not be what they are rewarded for in future. This is a real opportunity to change industry perception and incentivise producers in a different way.

“At the end of the day, if we end up with carcasses that are more valuable to us then we have no problem paying more for them. We won’t start paying on meat yield immediately, and it is likely that for all of 2011 we will still pay on the EUROP grid, but in time that is likely to change.”

Future profitability for everyone in the beef supply chain will come from making the best use every part of the carcass, he says. “VIA and yield assessment have a large part to play in that.”

Furthermore, the data derived from VIA grading could help provide more meaningful estimated breeding values (EBVs) too. “If information, such as strip loin content of a carcass or total meat yield can be fed back into EBVs, then some really meaningful data could be fed back to breeders.

“In time, buyers could have real physical and economic data to consider when buying a bull that has come from the progeny of his siblings or parents. The potential value of that is incredible.”

Differences in strip loin content of carcasses graded by VIA at ABP Perth

Cattle type

% strip loin (lowest)

% strip loin (highest)

% difference

All cattle












Young bulls




Case study: Adrian Ivory, Strathisla Farms, Blairgowrie, Perthshire

As one of the five farmers whose cattle were assessed by VIA at ABP’s Perth abattoir in 2010, Asda Beeflink member Adrian Ivory recognises the very meaningful information the technology can offer him.

“Being able to analyse every carcass for its constituent parts will be extremely valuable for us, as over time, we’ll be able to build up a picture of which of our sire and dam lines are leaving the most valuable carcasses and then adjust the breeding programme accordingly.

“As much as we could do this with the EUROP grading system, it is clear that EUROP grades don’t correlate to what our end customers want. Valuable cuts, such as the strip loin, are the ones we need to be concentrating on and aiming to produce more of, not big back ends when there isn’t the demand for roasting joints that there is for sirloin steak.”

Mr Ivory, who also runs two pedigree herds alongside his commercial cattle, believes over time VIA will also have an impact on the type of bull that buyers look for. “As VIA becomes commonplace and finishers are paid on meat yield and by the value of the different cuts, we could see a shift in the type of breeding stock wanted.

“Deeper, longer loins may well come more to the fore, with big back ends less desirable. The inclusion of VIA slaughter data in EBVs could be a real boon for the industry, feeding back real carcass data to breeders will only help them produce better bulls in the future,” says Mr Ivory.