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USDA launches Remote Grading Pilot for Beef

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

During a panelist discussion held at the National Western Stock Show in Denver on Jan. 19,  Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will launch the Remote Grading Pilot for Beef, a program to allow cattle producers and meat processors access to better markets through the department’s official beef quality grading and certification system.

Created by USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) to reduce costs and location barriers for participation in voluntary grading services, the program pairs technology with data management and program oversight to allow a USDA grader to evaluate beef carcasses and assign official quality grades from a remote location.

According to USDA, this program builds on the department’s “comprehensive approach to increase competition in agricultural markets, create a fairer playing field for small- and mid-sized operations and provide producers more options to market their products.” 

Background information

Beef buyers, sellers and consumers alike recognize and rely on USDA quality grades as a clear, standardized way to indicate the products they buy have gone through a rigorous review process by knowledgeable graders to determine and guarantee product quality. 

The department offers its official grading service to packers and processers on a user-fee basis, and over 90 percent of America’s beef supply is officially graded by the USDA, according to the department. 

However, due to the relatively high cost of paying for an official grader to perform an in-person visit, the service is often underutilized by small, independent processors.

“On average, a beef carcass that grades as USDA Prime is valued at hundreds of dollars more than an ungraded carcass, but costs for this voluntary USDA service often prevent smaller scale processors and the farmers and ranchers they serve from using this valuable marketing tool,” Vilsack says. 

“This remote grading pilot opens the door for additional packers and processors to receive grading and certification services, allowing them to access new, better and more diverse marketing opportunities,” he adds.

Pilot program

USDA explains through the program, trained employees will capture specific images of live animals and their respective carcasses, and images will be electronically submitted to a USDA grader, likely stationed in a rural community. 

The grader will evaluate the images and review plant records and product data, then assign the carcass a USDA quality grade and other applicable carcass certifications. 

After the grader communicates the official grade back to the plant, the plant can use the information in their retail marketing strategies and/or share it with producers. 

“The pilot will build on lessons learned during AMS’s feasibility study of a ‘remote grading’ process conducted during the second half of 2023,” notes USDA. “AMS will expand its testing by engaging a larger and more diverse number of beef packers to participate in the development of this procedure.”

“Through the pilot, AMS will gather additional information on actual cost and the level of in-person surveillance needed to ensure program consistency and integrity to formalize this innovative service option as part of the USDA Quality Grading Service,” the department continues.

Industry support 

Cattle industry organizations and producers across the U.S. welcomed the news.

In fact, the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association (USCA), which provided technical guidance to AMS during the development of the program, notes the idea for the project was presented by the USCA’s Independent Beef Processing Committee in a policy resolution adopted in 2020. 

“Before today’s announcement, it was simply unaffordable for an independent producer or processor to participate in providing quality-graded beef to the marketplace,” says USCA Independent Beef Processing Chairman Patrick Robinette in a Jan. 19 press release. “On my operation, the cost would have averaged $410 per head to receive grading services, which I would have never recouped.”  

He continues, “The pilot program would reduce this cost to $4.56 per head. Now, the producers I serve will be able to access value-added programs which were previously unavailable to them. With the free ribeye grid device that will be provided to participating processing facilities, independent producers and processors can qualify for programs like Certified Angus Beef.”

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) also offered praise. 

“The USDA quality grades of Prime, Choice and Select are instantly recognized by consumers and an important way for cattle producers to be rewarded for raising high-quality beef,” comments NCBA Vice President of Government Affairs Ethan Lane. 

“NCBA is glad USDA is launching this Remote Grading Pilot Program and expanding opportunities for meat grading to occur in smaller, local processing facilities,” he concludes. “This will increase marketing opportunities for cattle producers and help them capture more value from their product.”

Hannah Bugas is the managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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