Quality Grading System at Silver Fern Farms

May 2014

A PGP Programme with Silver Fern Farms and FarmIQ to assess eating quality

Silver Fern Farms has researched, devised, tested and implemented an Eating Quality (EQ) System for beef which selects “Reserve” grade premium prime beef cuts for the high-value food service, hotel, restaurant and catering customers in NZ and in export markets. Farmers receive detailed feedback on the grade outcomes of their prime cattle, informing their breeding and management strategies.

The EQ grading system has been introduced by Silver Fern Farms after funding research as part of the FarmIQ Primary Growth Partnership programme with the NZ Government. The research was carried out by a team of 38 scientists at Texas Tech University in the US and at the University of Otago, Dunedin, where SFF has its head office. The system is the first of its kind in New Zealand which uses a scientific process to determine taste preferences to guarantee consumers with premium quality red meat. Nearly 14,000 taste testers in both countries tested nearly 100,000 samples during 2013. The scope of the research was deliberately wide so the resulting quality standard targeted high-end consumers with different cuts of meat and a variety of cooking styles around the world. The data collected has been used to create a powerful mathematical formula which compares taste preferences from consumers with data from beef animals.

Silver Fern Farms conceived and invested in the EQ system within its integrated value chain model, Chief Executive Keith Cooper explains. “We need to be world leaders in red meat if New Zealand is to do more than simply trade commodities. This collaborative research and new grading system and our new range of ‘Reserve’ beef certainly puts us out in front. Silver Fern Farms has a strategy which starts with consumers – we start at the plate to determine what consumers want and work back to the pasture so we can deliver on that promise. This innovation fits with the Government Business Growth Agenda goal of building a more competitive and productive economy.”

SFF has linked the EQ system with its Backbone Partnership Programme which seeks farmers to make commitments and contracts to supply suitable beef cattle at nominated times. The aims of the Backbone programme include consistency, continuity and security of supply. “These are vital to supporting our brand and cementing successful lasting relationships with our customers. We work closely with committed groups of expert farmers to ensure a consistent supply of high quality livestock to agreed programmes that meet animal traceability, animal welfare and environmental quality standards.”

Farmers supplying prime beef cattle to the SFF co-operative will receive new grading reports indicating how their beef rates across a set of eating quality criteria. Detailed reports which integrate into the FarmIQ system are also being developed.

The EQ summary report shows the following:

  • How many cattle in the mob made the master grade.
  • The average fat colour in the optimal range (whiter is better).
  • Average red meat colour in the optimal range.
  • Average carcass weight in the optimal range for primal cuts of the size customers want to purchase.
  • Rib fat measurement within the optimal range.
  • pH level in the ribeye muscle.
  • Marbling – the intramuscular fat in the ribeye muscle.
  • Ossification – the process of cartilage turning to bone in the vertebrae.

The summary report also shows how that line of cattle tested relative to the averages for that region, generated by tests on all prime cattle through that plant.

Testing for pH is done by measuring the lactic acid present in conjunction with temperature. High pH can have a detrimental effect on meat colour, texture, shelf life and eating quality. Energy, or glycogen levels in the animal are the key to obtaining a pH in the acceptable range. Animals should reach the plant in as normal condition as possible. Minimising stress and ensuring that animals have enough energy reserves through adequate finishing will ensure an optimum pH/temperature.

Marbling is important for its influence on eating quality, especially across the high-value loin cuts. It is the last fat to be deposited and the first fat to be utilised by the animal as an energy source. To maximise marbling, cattle must be on a high-quality diet and any fasting before slaughter will quickly reduce marbling fat deposits.

Ossification is a measure of carcass maturity and the EQ system relates ossification to carcass weight, effectively a weight-for-age measure. Cattle with fast growth rates will reach slaughter weight at a younger age with reduced ossification. Genetic selection and management informed by this assessment will result in heavier, well-conditioned stock at a younger age and deliver an improved eating experience.

Rib fat should be a minimum of 3mm to reduce temperature variation in the muscles during chilling. Even chilling produces a more consistent and predictable eating quality as well as improved visual appearance. Fat colour reflects levels of beta-carotene and high levels give yellower fat, which is perceived as undesirable by some customers, as an indication of age or other otherwise inferior cattle.

Meat colour is assessed against a reference standard that reflects consumer preference for bright, cherry red beef. Stress before slaughter can affect meat pH levels, which in turn affects colour.

Ribeye muscle area is not currently used in the EQ system, but it is believed to correlate with the overall yield of the carcass.

EQ master graders have been trained for the three beef plants where the EQ system has been introduced. To qualify as an EQ Accredited Master Grader, prospective graders undergo a two-week training course and are re-tested every eight weeks to ensure they are calibrated. Successful graders must achieve a 100% pass rate in their practical assessment and at least a 70% pass rate in their theory assessment.

Farmer suppliers of prime heifers and steers which make the Reserve grades after inspection by EQ graders and who are supplying SFF under the Backbone Partnership Programme, are paid an additional 25c/kg CW over the current schedule or contract price for the whole carcass. At present EQ is operating at three SFF plants – Finegand in Balclutha, Belfast in Christchurch and Pacific in Hastings. All prime cattle supplied to these three plants get the EQ summary report, but only those contracted under Backbone get the premium price. The next level of EQ will be individual animal feedback, rather than total mob details, facilitated by animal EID on the NAIT system.

Jason Graham, the Livestock Programmes Manager for Silver Fern Farms, points out that detailed feedback fulfils the promise of EID for farmers, enabling them to make informed breeding and management decisions. The finishing of cattle on a rising plane of nutrition has been highlighted already by EQ in the four months it has been operating.

Keith Cooper adds, “It’s an investment farmer shareholders have made and it’s essential they get first advantage out of the premiums we’ll be able to get from the market. We are in an industry which needs to innovate and invest in creating value. We see this as an investment which will set us up very well for the future.”

Reserve grade beef from SFF is now available for the food service section of the local market throughout the country via SFF partner Bidvest. It has also been exported to the Middle East, Korea, Hong Kong and China and will shortly be available in Europe under NZ’s “Hilton quota” access.

EQ graded beef will shortly be available in retail-ready Silver Fern Farms packs (220 to 500g). Because of the variable quality of beef it was not included in the launch of these packs two years back, which now contain several types of lamb and venison.