The implementation of instrument grading technology within U.S. lamb processing facilities has the potential to augment and improve upon the current USDA grading system. Overall, implications will be dependent on the level of commitment and acceptance from industry stakeholders. Future application of vision image analysis systems to collect information provides the framework for knowledge and communication of product yield, quality, and value that can be disseminated to both sheep producers regarding their product and retailers that will merchandise lamb. Darrell Dowd, USDA-AMS Meat Grading stated that open communication about lamb between producer, processor, and retailer is key. In regard to future application of the available technology, Mr. Dowd declared "Itís a great tool for the future of USDA lamb grading" (Dowd, 2014).
The three most critical lamb quality areas that drive whole supply chain profit and consumer acceptance are lean meat yield, eating quality and human nutritive value (Pethick et al., 2011). United States Department of Agriculture grading is the accepted methodology of determination of both lean meat yield (USDA Yield Grade) and eating quality (USDA Quality Grade). In order to maintain and build on current market share and be a competitive red meat protein, there is a needed emphasis on "continuous improvement" of lamb product yield, quality, and meeting the value proposition of lamb as a premium product. The Lamb Industry Roadmapís conclusions were adamant about both installation of electronic grading and providing a value based pricing scheme for merchandised lambs. "Value-based pricing is the key to creating other critical changes in the American lamb industry. The lamb packers must take the lead in this initiative and producers and feeders must respond appropriately. If the packers do not execute this effort, the other recommendations in this Roadmap will have minimal effect" (The Hale Group, 2013).
Australian research suggested that a combination of genetics, industry production, and meat science should be combined for continuous improvement of the sheep and lamb industry (Pethick et al., 2011).
As a diverse sheep industry, breed composition and growth rate, American production systems, and lean muscle and body composition differ in U.S. produced lambs. Over 30 years ago, Parker and Pope (1983) noted even though carcass improvement and lean lamb technologies were available, application was limited due to an emphasis on body weight at marketing and the lack of a value-based marketing
system (Parker and Pope, 1983). The United States sheep industry, in general terms, has long been a commodity driven product with most sales and value determination based on pounds of product merchandised. Even though lamb is sold at a premium to competitive proteins, an evident missing link is value based pricing of lamb that has been incorporated into both the beef and pork sectors of the red meat supply chain.
Future implementation of lamb instrument grading would provide accurate, objective measurements of USDA Yield Grade and lamb carcass conformation. Recorded carcass information can then be advantageously provided back to sheep producers. "The lamb producer that markets superior carcasses, with greater consumer appeal, expects to realize financial rewards from doing so. The expectation of greater income received from marketing superior lambs is motivation for producers to develop a strategy to improve carcass value through selection of genetically superior breeding stock" (Waldron, 2002). In order for instrument grading and value-based marketing to lead to more consistent and preferred lamb, value differentiation will be necessary with premiums for ideal carcass specifications as well as disincentives for lamb that falls short on lean meat yield and predicted eating quality.
Phase one of this lamb instrument grading study entailed the USDA-AMS standardization of the E + V Technology VSS 2000 system to assess the assignment of USDA grades to lamb carcasses. Future application could be implemented in-plant to augment lamb carcass grading on a real time basis at plant processing speed. This technology would enable the conveyance of information back to sheep producers as well as provide packing plants and fabrication companies more predictable yield analysis, and inevitably, provide the missing link to assigning value to lamb carcasses in an industry that historically has been weight driven. Furthermore, additional information of projected cut yields would allow processors enhanced inventory control and the ability to provide more consistent customer orders.
A 1964 article entitled "What is the Potential of Changing Merchandising in Lamb?" described the past state of the American lamb industry, and emphasized the focus on the consumerís point of view and their role as our true end customer. Story (1964) stated that "It is the consumer and not the retailer who makes the decisions. It is a pretty well established fact that consumers do not understand, know or care about government grading. They do know, however, that they want a prescribed amount of lean in a piece of meat, whether it be lamb, beef or pork; it must have good eating quality (flavor) with a sufficient amount of tenderness" (Story, 1964). The question becomes, "How does the American lamb industry ensure that the consumer consistently purchases lean lamb that is tender and flavorful?"
This paper previously addressed optimizing cooler management, optimizing fabrication scheduling, lamb product consistency and customer specifications, lean meat yield, lamb value-based pricing, USDA grading costs, and personnel costs, and return on investment of the implementation of lamb instrument grading in U.S. processing plants. The challenge with direct quantification of plant impacts is dependent on level of application and decisions from plant management in how, and what manner, to manage data and information provided through augmented USDA grading capabilities.31
Sheep producers throughout the United States may in the near future have the ability to receive carcass merit data on lambs produced within their operation, and in fact potentially be paid on true carcass value of lamb. U.S. sheep feedlots may also be given market signals on meeting a preferred lamb carcass if instrument grading is coupled with in-plant value-based marketing schemes. The availability of information back in the supply chain to sheep producers will be revolutionized IF carcass merit and value data is conveyed to producers that send lambs to commercial processing facilities.
Lamb processing facilities will be provided individual and group data of lambs only moments after hot carcass weight is recorded, and a predicted USDA Yield and Quality Grade is assigned that may be used to sort lamb carcasses as they enter the cooler. The future of how USDA-AMS wishes to incorporate the lamb vision system technology for assignment of grading designations is yet undetermined, but a USDA grader will most likely continue to be required in the plant to monitor the instrument and grading process. With added information and cooler sorting, plant personnel may choose to fabricate lamb carcasses differently dependent on USDA Yield Grade, Quality Grade, and hot carcass weight. A lamb fabrication floor cuts carcasses into a wide variety of customer specifications on a daily basis. Information on cutout yield data was presented in this paper, and predicted equations were further refined by E + V Technology that could provide value by fabricating cuts to the most profitable endpoints. Along with capitalizing on in-plant production efficiencies, improved meeting of customer specifications and product uniformity may assist one of U.S. lambís current challenges compared to imported product, consistency.
Over 2 million head of lambs were slaughtered in 2013 at federally inspected processing plants of which approximately 1.4 million head were USDA graded. The first step for the U.S. sheep industry would be implementation of lamb instrument grading at the largest processing facilities. This will cost approximately $150,000 per processing plant. Next, with collaboration from USDA, the augmented grading system has the potential to be audit-based in the future. Additionally, the ability to accurately assign USDA Yield and Quality Grades may lead to a matrix to reward the most preferred and profitable lamb carcasses, and disincentives for yield and quality outliers within the lamb industry. Most importantly, unprecedented information about lamb carcass composition and value will be collected and available. True production management decisions can be made by U.S. sheep producers with conveyance of product attributes of harvested lambs. The value of the technology is the information and dissemination up and down the market channels. Furthermore, the lamb supply chain can better incentivize high yielding, quality lambs, and inevitably, meet customer specifications and consumer acceptance of American lamb. Potential of added information available to sheep producers of their lambs, processors of the lean meat yield, and retailers of lamb products that meets consistent specifications may all add benefits to the sheep/lamb supply chain. Overall, increased reliable information of lamb carcasses through implementation of lamb instrument grading to assess lamb carcasses should prove beneficial to U.S. lamb industry stakeholders.