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The importance of carcass quality in beef production

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Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

  • Carcass quality affects the eventual meat quality and therefore has a substantial impact on consumer acceptability of the final product.
  • From the producer’s perspective, carcass quality has substantial financial implications as producers are paid by suppliers according to a carcass classification system.
  • Carcass age is determined by the number of permanent incisors and is designated as A, B, AB or C accordingly.
  • Carcass data in conjunction with consumer trends should be used to strategically quantify and monitor perceived quality within different spheres.

An increase in consumer awareness of livestock production has also sparked an interest in carcass quality. This is an intricate topic influenced by several intrinsic and extrinsic factors such as breed, sex and the production system.

Carcass quality affects the eventual meat quality and therefore has a substantial impact on consumer acceptability of the final product. Every step in the value chain has an important role to play in ensuring carcass quality and consumer acceptability.

From the producer’s perspective, carcass quality has substantial financial implications as producers are paid by suppliers according to a carcass classification system. On the other hand, suppliers are paid by retailers to provide a product with desired specifications and quality.

Ultimately, the consumer provides the parameters for perceived quality. Furthermore, what drives the value chain is the ability of producers to provide the desired product consistently and continuously. Herein lies the crux of carcass quality for the producer – sustained carcass uniformity.

The SA beef carcass classification system

A carcass classification system is a tool used to allocate codes to certain carcass characteristics; the importance of this being that no carcass class is designated as more or less desirable than another. According to the South African beef carcass classification system, carcasses are classified, and roll-marked according to animal age, fat content, conformation and degree of condemnation.

Carcass age is determined by the number of permanent incisors and is designated as A, B, AB or C accordingly. Fat content is described from no fat to excessively fat on a scale of one to six. Carcass conformation is described from very flat to very round on a scale of one to five. Carcass condemnation is described from slight to severe on a scale of one to three and has substantial financial implications for the producer.

The buyer or end consumer can utilise these codes to quantify their perceived quality based on their current needs and preferences. In this way, the consumer decides which class is preferred rather than being told which class is superior to which.

Sources and types of carcass data

There is a variety of carcass data sources. The type of data available from a source often depends on the given stage of the value chain. For example, there is carcass data recorded at processing facilities, real-time ultrasound (RTU) scanning or genetic tests.

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Processing facilities record a large amount of carcass data. This often involves physical measurements such as live weight, hot carcass weight, cold carcass weight and dressing percentage. This type of data is valuable to quantify the producers’ output.

Hot carcass weight is the weight after exsanguination and before chilling, whereas the cold carcass weight is the weight after chilling (water loss). Dressing percentage is the proportion of hot or cold carcass weight as a percentage of the live weight of the animal. Dressing percentage can cautiously be used to predict how much meat is expected from the live weight of an animal. More importantly, it can be used to determine the weight upon which payment is calculated for animals sold on a live weight basis. Notably, producers that supply animals that uniformly yield less carcass loss see greater returns.

RTU can be used to scan live animals to predict carcass characteristics. This is often more useful in breeding animals to contribute towards estimated breeding value (EBV) calculations for the given traits. However, it can also be done when animals are finished to predict the carcass measurements.

Although RTU scanning requires a trained technician, it only needs to be recorded once and can reap many benefits in beef production. RTU scanning data is not the same as direct carcass data measured at processing facilities but is closely related. Carcass characteristics measured in RTU scanning include intramuscular fat content, eye-muscle area, rib fat and rump fat.

Genetic tests can be used to identify genes that are associated with carcass characteristics but are not physical carcass measurements. This data is commonly used in breeding animals to make more informed breeding decisions depending on the breeding objectives. Prevalent commercially available genetic tests include marbling and tenderness, where samples are used to determine the presence or absence of genes associated with these traits.

Improving carcass quality

There are no defined parameters for what is deemed ‘quality’. Carcass data in conjunction with consumer trends should be used to strategically quantify and monitor perceived quality within different spheres.

In using carcass data and striving for uniformity of these traits in finishing animals, consumer acceptance can be enhanced by improving consumer satisfaction. Improved carcass uniformity can ultimately increase consumer demand and strengthen the entire value chain. – Jody Young, MScAgric production physiology and product quality candidate, University of Pretoria

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