Beef carcase classification

Beef Carcase Classification is required under European Union (EU) Regulations. This is to ensure the uniform classification of beef carcases for the purposes of EU Cattle Price Reporting. It is also intended to improve transparency in the marketing of beef carcases to the benefit of all sectors of the industry. Agri-food Inspection Branch (AfIB) checks grading standards and approves industry classifiers and VIA (Video Image Analysis) classification equipment.

VIA classification data

Detailed below are the data classification data tables for each date of publication.

VIA Classification accuracy data April-June 2021

Meat plant VIA score for conformation grade VIA score for fat class Percentages of carcases dressed to specification
A 875 862 89.3
B 711 856 94.0
C 872 951 94.0
D 870 954 95.0
E 855 908 96.7
F 897 779 95.2
G 822 937 92.7

VIA Classification accuracy data January-March 2021

Meat plant VIA score for conformation grade VIA score for fat class Percentages of carcases dressed to specification
A 843 845 92.5
B 893 953 91.7
C 912 940 96.0
D 850 917 89.3
E 920 822 96.0
F 880 898 92.5
G 832 948 94.0

Explanatory notes

Meat plants are listed in no particular order and will remain anonymous. The order in which they appear in the list changes randomly at each publication. The data is gathered from statutory inspection reports completed during unannounced checks by DARD Senior Technical Inspectors in each slaughterhouse.

VIA Score for Conformation Grade indicates how accurately the Visual Imaging Analysis equipment is grading the carcases. Legislative requirements (Commission Regulation (EC) 1249/2008) dictate a minimum score of 600.

VIA Score for Fat Class indicates how accurately the Visual Imaging Analysis equipment is grading the carcases. Legislative requirements (Commission Regulation (EC) 1249/2008) dictate a minimum score of 600.
The current dressing specification for carcases in Northern Ireland is known as the UK Specification. Any carcases not dressed to this specification are noted during statutory inspections and will reduce this percentage figure.

If the results from a check on a machine are unsatisfactory DARD requires the machine to be switched off and carcases to be graded manually. The data from checks carried out when a machine is switched off are not included in the report.

VIA - your questions answered

Automated grading equipment, otherwise known as VIA (Video Imaging Analysis), purchased by beef processors is licensed for use in seven locations in NI - ABP Lurgan, ABP Newry, Dunbia, Foyle Meats, Linden Foods, Omagh Meats and WD Meats. All of these slaughterhouses started using the VIA equipment on Monday 28 March 2011. Manual grading continues in Oakdale Meats, Ballymena Meats and Lakeview Meats.

Who is responsible for VIA?

The slaughter houses using VIA are each responsible for the accuracy of the carcase classification in their business. They are required to carry out calibration and grading accuracy checks on the machine each day and to implement a daily maintenance programme. The machine manufacturer was responsible for the installation of the machines and for the ongoing provision of servicing and repairs. DARD is responsible for the statutory inspection of machine performance and ensuring that classification and carcase presentation are carried out to the required standard.

Was EU certification completed?

The machines installed are the VBS 2000 (E+V Technology) which was the type of machine used in the EU Certification Test conducted successfully at Foyle Meats during March 2010. Further to the main test, the EU Community Inspection Committee visited two factories in Northern Ireland using VIA technology during May 2011 and their checks showed that the machines were grading accurately.  Some small amendments to the settings were implemented in May 2012.  These were fully tested prior to implementation and the EU Commission duly notified of the specific changes made and adopted.

Were individual machines licenced in 2011?

After installation in 2010/2011, when the VIA machines in each factory met the required standard on a repeated basis their licence was issued. The EU requires the machines to achieve 600 points for conformation and fat. The average scores achieved in the licensing checks were over 800 for both conformation and fat.

What standard does the machine apply?

The machine is designed to apply the EC Classification Standard, which is the standard previously used by the Livestock and Meat Commission classification officers.

Are grades different from manual grading?

Producers now find that their cattle are graded by the machine using a 15 point scale. The machine divides each conformation grade (E, U, R, O, P) and fat class (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) into three subclasses which is shows as +, = and -. What would have been graded manually as R3 is shown as R= 3= under the 15 point scale.

How accurate is the machine?

The settings in the VIA machines are those determined from the calibration test carried out in 2010 involving expert graders from across Europe. Human graders do not always entirely agree nor will they ever entirely agree with the grades produced by the machines. However, the machine is designed to be more consistent and reliable than manual graders. During the most recent 12 months (April 2014 to March 2015) the average scores for conformation and fat were 875 and 897 respectively, indicating that the machine achieved a high standard of grading accuracy.

What about “outliers”?

Some producers and processors speak of the machine producing “outliers” i.e. grades that are significantly up or down the scale from the true grade. Under manual grading, an error was considered as being one full grade/class out. Therefore “outliers” are defined as being greater that one full class out. This means that “outliers” are 4 sub classes or more away from the correct grade. The machine does produce some of these but they are very much in the minority – occurring at 0.02% for conformation grading and 0.027% for fat classification. These statistics refer to the percentage of outliers in a sample of 14,984 carcases checked by DARD Senior Technical Inspectors over the period April 2014 until March 2015 and have remained very similar from switch on through to the present.  It is not clear why these outliers occur. Producers are advised to check the classification of their stock and should they receive an unexpected outcome draw this to the attention of the slaughter house.

Can I have my carcases reassessed and re-graded?

If carcases presented do not grade as expected you are advised to contact the slaughterhouse.  Please note, that even if an agreement is made as to the “correct” grade, the grade on the carcase label cannot be changed.  There is also no appeals service through LMC or DARD.  Financial compensation may be arrived at with the slaughterhouse but the possibility of this is entirely at their discretion.

Can the machine accurately grade all categories?

The machine is designed, calibrated and checked regularly to ensure that the EC Classification Standard is applied across all categories – Animals aged 8 months to under 12 months, Young Bulls (<2 years), Mature Bulls, Steers, Cows and Heifers. DARD regularly completes analysis by category and even by grade to determine if levels of accuracy remain acceptable.

How does the machine score compared to manual graders?

Scoring a VIA machine is completely different to scoring a manual grader, for two reasons. Firstly, the VIA machine grades on a 15 point scale (more room for making small errors) not a five point as with manual grading, and secondly the VIA errors are weighted according to how far they are from the correct grade. If a mistake is made by a manual grader it is counted as being one error. If a mistake is made by the VIA machine, on the 15 point scale, then it is scored by how big an error it is i.e. it loses more points for larger variance from the correct classification. For example: a manual grader puts a fat class 3 on what is actually a fat class 4H – this equates to one error. If the machine puts an equivalent fat class 3= on what is actually a 4+ then it scores -30 points, instead of +10 points if it had been accurate. Overall therefore a score of 600 points by a machine is more difficult to achieve than 80% accuracy in manual grading check terms.

Can the machine be adjusted?

If someone tampers with the machine this should be picked up during a routine DARD inspection. It is unlikely however that the machine will continue to work if someone tampers with the settings. The settings on the machine may only be changed with the approval of DARD. Any change to the settings of the machine that are not approved by DARD is an offence that can result in prosecution.

Can dressing specification affect the machine?

How the carcase is presented before it passes the VIA machine is important to the accuracy of the machine. The dressing specification must be the same as the one used during the national test of the machine or at the very least one that is not significantly different. Carcases during the 2010 test were dressed to the UK Specification and therefore all factories must continue to use this same dressing specification and make sure they fulfil all aspects of it. DARD inspectors pay close attention to dressing presentation issues when they are in all of the factories, those using VIA and those manually grading. Any non-conformance is immediately brought to the attention of factory management and on occasion more punitive action is taken.  In addition to the inspection of carcase classification and dressing DARD Senior Technical Inspectors also check the weighing and labelling of carcases. If any of these are found to be unsatisfactory DARD takes appropriate enforcement action with processors to have problems corrected.

What happens if a machine breaks down?

Each machine must be checked daily by slaughterhouse personnel and a control report kept for DARD inspection. The slaughterhouse must have a grader (licensed by DARD for beef carcase classification) on site at all times to undertake grading if a machine stops working.  When a machine fails to classify to the correct standard (either during daily slaughterhouse personnel checks or official DARD control inspections) it is switched into “Test Mode” and is only switched back on following at least one satisfactory DARD inspection.  During a period where “Test Mode” is implemented, all carcases are graded manually by the slaughterhouse licensed grader.

Are there other reasons why carcases would be graded manually?

On a daily basis VIA machines will not classify some carcases for a number of reasons. In a few cases the carcase may be presented the wrong way round where the camera ‘sees’ the inside rather than the outside of the carcase. If the carcase overhangs the edge of the handling board the machine recognises that part of the carcase is not included for assessment and a grade will not be generated. The machine has a number of additional checks built into its operating system such as assessing if the size of the carcase is consistent with the weight of the carcase which has been photographed. There is also provision for carcases which veterinary staff do not wish to come in contact with the VIA equipment to bypass the machine without being classified.

How will I know if my carcases have been graded automatically or manually?

Processors are statutorily obliged to notify producers whether carcases were classified by automatic or manual means. This is often shown on remittance advice notices as A for VIA classification and M for manual or human classification.

Ongoing checks

DARD carried out weekly unannounced checks on all machines from 28th March 2011 (when the machines went live) until January 2012. At this point the frequency was reduced to at least three per month and since April 2012 has become at least two per month. This reflects the consistent level of accuracy that has been maintained by the machines. During a check the DARD Inspector grades between 40 and 80 carcases (usually 80) using the 15 point scale and then compares their grades against the grades applied by the VIA machine. Each carcase is also assessed for compliance with rules on carcase dressing and trim. The inspections are risk based, so if any problems are identified inspection frequency can be increased. Where no problems are discovered inspection frequency will be reduced over time. The results of inspection checks are made available to producers, on a bi-monthly basis, on the DARD website. 

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