A report by the Office of Inspector General (OIG) has found problems with the camera-grading system used to assess about 40% of the beef carcasses harvested and processed in the U.S. These automated systems help use staff time efficiently, but it may not be established in an objective and transparent way.
The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) facilitates the competitive and efficient marketing of agricultural products and provides grading services in more than 1,000 establishments. It works in conjunction with the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), which is the public health regulatory agency of the department overseeing food safety and plant inspections.
Inaccuracies and loopholes in the system may be costing consumers millions of dollars every year on beef that is actually a lower grade than it is labeled. The report states, “as long as the Agricultural Marketing Service relies on and encourages the use of these cameras to assist AMS graders, the methodology used to define the cameras’ grading classifications must be established in a way that is objective and transparent to all interested stakeholders.”
U.S. standards for beef carcass grades were formulated in 1926 and promulgated under the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946. The standards are the basis for reporting the quality of beef, according to grade, across the industry. The classifications aren’t required in order to sell beef, but they are used as a marketing tool. Inspections for safety are required.
Grading is applied by standards on fat and fat marbling, color, age, and the rib eye area. In 1978, the Government Accountability Office said that consistency in grading was lacking, so AMS began to develop instruments to make consistency more attainable.
The score for marbling is most important; it’s divided into 100 marbling points from 100 to 11,000. Minimum Prime is 700, minimum Choice is 400, and minimum Select is 300. The Prime grade is applied to 2 to 3.5% of all beef produced in this country. It’s usually not for sale in grocery stores, since restaurants purchase most of it. It is illegal to mislabel beef with an incorrect grade.
Camera grading, called “electronic instrument grade augmentation” was implemented in September 2009, giving slaughter plants the option to use the cameras or use manual grading. When AMS established the classifications of grading, industry said the cameras didn’t conform to manual grading done by actual people, so AMS lowered the grades. That means more beef may be receiving higher grades. If the grades aren’t correct, consumers are overpaying for the beef they are buying to the tune of $375 million a year, according to OIG calculations.
Recommendations include verifying the accurate of the system, having methodologies evaluated by third-party experts, reviewing certification programs, and ensuring that the cameras are calibrated and maintained. Interviews with 16 AMS graders were conducted to understand the effectiveness of grading cameras.