The current grading system at Irish meat plants has been described as “completely outdated” as they are unable to provide “real-time information” to beef farmers.

Although a number of farm organisations, Meat Industry Ireland and the Minister of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Michael Creed, have rowed in behind some calls for a review of the Quality Pricing System (QPS) – otherwise known as the beef grid, introduced in 2009 –  independent TD Denis Naughten says there is “no point” reforming the grid system without reforming the grading system.

Mechanical grading machines were first introduced on beef processing floors back in 2004.

Although meat plants are required to perform a daily system check every morning to ensure that mechanical carcass grading machines are working to sufficient standards, Naughten argues that these standards are “not high enough” in terms of ensuring the accuracy of the grades.

While Minister Creed recently confirmed that beef grading machines at Irish meat plants can achieve an accuracy reading of 94.8% for fat cover and 91.8% for conformation, it was also confirmed that the “minimum accuracy figure” for conformation and fat cover that must be achieved for a mechanical classification system to be authorised for use in any EU state is currently set at 60%.

Speaking to AgriLand, Naughten – who last year resigned from his Government post as minister for communications, climate action and the environment – said that after trawling through old records of the time when beef grading machines were first implemented he was “startled by discrepancies” between the breakdown, or withdrawal, of grading machines on factory floors compared to weighing scales over the years.

“Weighing scales – which are regulated by the National Standards Authority of Ireland – get a lot of hacking, naturally enough, so they are going to be out of calibration and they have to be taken out of meat processing.

“I found that in the previous two years – 2017 and 2018 – just four weighing scales had to be taken out on inspection out of the whole processing sector – and yet there were 21 electronic grading machines taken out during the same period.

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“As we know, mechanical grading machines are effectively cameras and lights. So, having so many of those taken out of the system, where they are not getting bandied around in meat plants, and yet we had just four scales taken out of the system, the figures just didn’t add up,” said the Roscommon-Galway representative.

Practical Steps

Pointing out that over the last four years 38 grading machines have been taken out of the system – due to the miscalculating of grades on more than four in every 10 animals – Naughten argues that “clearly there is a flaw” with the operation of the those machines.

Those machines need to be replaced.

“The reason that I’m quite concerned over it is, yes farmers at the moment are very concerned in relation to the factory gate price that they are getting for cattle, and rightly so, but there are a lot of factors involved in that.

“Personally, I believe that we need to move away from the current system that we have in relation to marketing and processing to a system where, like Kerrygold, we have a distinctive Irish brand for Irish suckler beef – and that our target is the premium meat markets across Europe and the globe – rather than purely focusing on manufacturing and catering meat for the UK sector.

Also Read: 21 beef-grading machines ‘shut down’ after unannounced inspections

“But, in tandem with that, in the short term there are practical steps that can be taken and clearly the grading of animals is one where there are significant discrepancies.

“Absolutely the grid system needs to be reviewed. Anything that has been in place for that period of time should be revisited.

I understand the reasoning behind the introduction of the grid system at the time; but, it’s not just the grid system, it’s how those animals are being graded against that grid system is equally as important.

Naughten claims that, even if the grading of an animal is two sub categories out, a farmer could lose up to €140/head.

“Farmers may be losing far more than that. So, clearly it’s not just the grid system; but it’s how individual carcasses are actually put onto that grid system.

Also Read: Naughten: ‘Grading machines getting it wrong on over 4 out of 10 cattle’

“The grid system itself is very complex; but technology has come a long way since those grading machines were introduced – they were first tested 20 years ago.

The technology is there and technology needs to be used so that farmers have confidence in the way their stock is actually being graded.

“It’s completely outdated; there is absolutely no justification for such old machines being used that cannot provide real-time information to farmers,” he said.

One Voice

Naughten says the pressure to overhaul both grid and grading systems must collectively come from the country’s farm organisations.

He also says the meat industry should foot the bill for new grading machines.

I know there are mixed views within the farm organisations. But, if we are going to have success in moving these issues along, we need to be able, if at all possible, to talk with one voice.

“If these machines can be up to 95% accurate, why are we accepting a tolerance rate of 60%? The rules that are there at the moment need to be changed.

“The fault, I believe, lies with the Department of Agriculture because they haven’t upgraded the standards over the years.

I also believe each and every one of those mechanical grading machines need to go into the recycling bin.

“We need new grading equipment in every single plant across the country and that has to be paid for by the industry.

“The industry should and must pay for that, the machines that are in operation in the UK are far more modern and accurate than the ones we have here,” he said.