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USDA Announces a New Remote Beef Grading Pilot Program- Will it Change the Industry?

Updated: Feb 16

Can Remote Processing Make Small Processors More Competitive?

There is a lot of interest in expanding local meat processing.  Congress is considering legislation to support small processors which would add competition to the market.  Recently, the USDA has received thousands of applications for grant funding and awarded millions of dollars to small processors. Likewise, many states have made programs available to small processing facilities. 

Federal grants and State programs lower the barriers to entry for new processors and help custom-exempt processors get USDA certification.  But they don’t address many of the long-term challenges that threaten the success of these plants.  Labor shortages and access to inspectors and certifiers account for location obstacles.  Meeting government regulations and managing waste products require logistical foresight. And, when it comes to cost, a facility has to consider their access to capital, have the assurance of enough animals while also effectively managing their meat inventory, and produce a high-quality product that can be sold at a competitive price. 

Working on small processors' feasibility studies for new facilities, I’ve explored the financial and logistical considerations of opening a new plant. Thinking through everything from real estate, construction, waste management, and grading services; to markets, distribution and inventory management systems. It’s easy to focus on the upfront requirements and costs, but for the long-term success of a facility, it’s important to consider future operational needs as well. 

Meat processing is a regulated and expensive point in the food supply chain sequence.  The USDA is exploring a remote beef grading pilot program that might serve to streamline at least one step of the process and could be a cost-effective approach for small beef processing facilities. This program could improve their long -term success in ways that grant programs will not.

Why Meat Grades Matter

Meat grading is a voluntary process conducted by a third party, The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service. Grading dictates the value, or revenue, you can generate. The difference in ungraded versus graded beef can be hundreds of dollars per animal unit. It’s also a universal language in the industry. The phrase USDA Prime is one that consumers, producers and everyone that handles the cut of beef in between understands. Without the grade standard you risk losing clear communication, and the value of the beef gets blurry.

Is All Beef Graded?

When these facilities upgrade to USDA certified, they stop selling whole, half, or quarter animals. They start selling the cuts that consumers are used to buying, which is a big benefit. However, without grading the animal, the producer or processor cannot capture the full value of the animal. The value of the meat is generally based on other factors like how the animal was finished, where the animal spent the majority of its life, or proximity to the buyer. It’s simpler, but not necessarily more lucrative.

Logistics and Fees of Beef Grading

Small meat processing facilities, let’s say working with 2000 head of beef per year, face several barriers; location being one of them. You have to find a place close enough to the cattle you are buying for slaughter to minimize transportation costs. It has to be far enough away from urban areas for the sake of waste management and sanitation. But, also close enough to those same urban areas that will likely be purchasing your steaks and burgers. Every decision matters to the bottom line.

But location plays a role in meat grading as well. It can be tough to find employees when your facility is remote, and the same goes for meat graders. Without graders, the processor cannot capture the extra value from the meat. Getting graders to rural and remote locations is expensive.  The smaller the facility the more these grading fees eat into the profit. 

How Does it Work?

Remote beef grading technology leverages imaging software and digital data collection.  Snap an image of your sectioned ribeye and upload it. A remote beef grader, working from a desk, returns results within 24 hours. Then, the beef is marketed as USDA Prime, Choice or Select and can participate in commercial marketing programs like Certified Angus Beef. 

Small beef processing facilities stand to benefit the most from this remote beef grading pilot program. These facilities struggle with the cost and availability of graders. This program could reduce costs and increase value, which both help profitability. 

A processing facility in North Carolina estimates that this remote beef grading pilot program could save them more than $400 per cow. 

In that case, independent processing facilities can now play in a much broader marketplace. Producers and processors alike could reap significant financial benefits. It could even be the launching pad for small farms looking to break into the processing and butchering points on the supply chain.

Long Term Feasibility

Current grant funding lowers the barriers of entry for small scale processors. This will likely not be enough to support long-term market competition.  Remote beef grading increases long-term viability, by addressing an ongoing obstacle that many processors face. Does it pencil out for the long-term success of independent processing plants?

It’s possible that beef grading is becoming less necessary.  Many of these small independent processing plants are selling locally or traveling to farmers markets.  They’ve built brands off of their locale and feeding methods, not their grades of meat. Perhaps their customers do not care if meat is Prime and do not feel the need to pay extra for that labeling.

This is not the only challenge that processors and local meat advocates face. I think this program addresses a major advantage that large producers have and I’m glad to see an innovative use of technology to lower costs and improve access to graders. 

This pilot program could be pivotal for the industry. You’re perfectly positioned to take advantage of this opportunity if you’ve already done your homework and established solid relationships. 

Plus, the remote beef grading pilot program will collect data on the feasibility of the small processing plant business model.  Specifically shedding light on how lower operational fees paired with higher ticket items brought to market really impact long term success. These programs and studies are needed. We have far more data on production elements than we do on the processing phase.  If we want to see more small beef processing facilities succeed, we absolutely need to compile more information to support them.

Official details can be found here:

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