As a livestock farmer it is important to have a comprehensive understanding of South Africa’s meat classification system. Without this understanding, farmers are at risk of consistently supplying meat that may fall short in terms of quality or standards expected by consumers.
Understanding meat classification and what abattoirs look for when classifying meat is important to a farmer’s enterprise. This is because it offers crucial insights into the specific types of animals best suited to meet consumer demands, while also encouraging producers to improve livestock performances to achieve optimum prices.
Meat classification is a quality indicator/carcass descriptive system that shows the relative financial worth of various meat classes. A carcass’s age, fat cover, carcass composition, and damage to it is usually communicated in a food-grade certified ink.
According to Chris Ngeleza, national manager at South Africa Meat Industry Company (SAMIC), this descriptive system is in place to ensure the quality of meat produced in Mzansi.
“Farmers need to understand that they need to slaughter at the registered abattoirs, and preferably that are doing meat classification so that they can have an overview of what’s happening on the farm,” he says.
There are five characteristics of meat classification for beef, lamb, sheep and goats. These include age, fat distribution, conformation, damages, and the sex of the animal.
Age and impact on profit
Abattoirs determine age by examining the number of permanent teeth of the lower jaw in an animal’s mouth. Knowing the age of your animals will help you increase profit.
When it comes to beef and small stock, there are four different age classes in the meat classification system:
A class: The animal has no permanent incisors (milk/baby teeth). The animal is on average less than 18 months old and is stamped in the colour purple. This code means that the meat is from a young animal and is the most tender meat. Usually most desired by consumers.
AB class: An animal that has cut one or two permanent teeth. That animal will be more than 18 months old. So it will be marked in an AB stamp that is green in colour. This code means that the meat is from a young animal in transition to an adult animal and the meat is reasonably tender.
B class: An animal that has three to six permanent incisors and will be two and a half years to about three and a half years. The stamp is brown and the code means that the meat is from an adult animal and is less tender.
C class: Refers to a beef animal that has seven to eight permanent incisors/teeth that will be more than three and a half years old. They are stamped in the red colour. The code means that the meat is from an adult animal and is the least tender.
Weight and fat
Abattoirs also classify the animal meat according to the subcutaneous fat on the carcass. This fat is located under the skin of animals.
A common misconception is that a heavier carcass or more fat directly equates to higher profits. Simply having a heavier animal or more fat doesn’t guarantee increased earnings. The quality and market demand play a significant role in determining the actual value of the livestock.
According to Ngeleza, fat within the muscle isn’t considered because it is called marbling. Marbling is breed dependent. In Mzansi there are more than 30 breeds and not all breeds have natural marbling.
“For the subcutaneous fat, the stamp is between zero to six, depending on the fat layer on the carcass. And it’s stamped in purple,” he says.
- Fat code 0-1: No fat and signs that animals are underfed (farmers will be penalised)
- Fat code 2-3: Deemed lean/medium fat
- Fat code 4-5: Means animal is fat
- Fat code 6: Excessively over fat
Conformation is the meat-to-bone ratio. The key is to remember that producers are in the business of selling meat, not bones.
Conformation works from stamp one to stamp five. According to Ngeleza, conformation three is the medium frame where one can expect to find just more than 50% meat and less bone. This code, usually in green, is what farmers should strive for, Ngeleza explains.
Conformation scores are as follows:
- Code 1: Excessively flat
- Code 2: Is flat (code 1 and 2 means more bones than fat).
- Code 3: Is the medium frame
- Code 4: Deemed round frame
- Code 5: Very round
According to Ngezela, Code 3-5 is ideal for beef meat production as the meat yield is deemed higher. However, it is important to note that round conformation is also breed dependent.
Producers need to give the livestock the optimal nutrition as required for the best meat yield results. Maintaining nutritional value is of utter importance.
“The majority of the market is at the moment looking for lean meat, Code 2-3, and is paying the optimum price. [Maintaining nutrition and constantly measuring their fat codes by slaughtering at registered meat classification abattoirs [will help produce the best classes of meat],” he explains.
Damages and avoiding them
It’s a reality in the industry that carcass damage can occur during the transportation of live animals to the abattoir, especially when there’s excessive bumping during the journey. This can impact the quality of the final product and your pocket, which is why careful handling and transport to maintain the value of the carcass is important.
Damages are caused by various factors:
- Incorrect handling of animals;
- Overloading and condition of transport;
- Horns, incorrect handling facilities;
- Incorrect vaccination techniques etc.
If there are any damages found on the carcass, farmers are penalised. There are three types of damage. The carcass is usually stamped in brown ink in the vicinity where the damage is.
- Code 1: Slightly damaged
- Code 2: Moderate damage
- Code 3: Severe damage
Sex of the animal
The sex of the animal is also indicated on the carcass. Uncastrated bulls will be marked “MD” in the black ink. The MD stamp only applies to classes AB, B and C. Class A is not included, as class A is believed to be too young to mate. So that is how the stamps and the marking and the colours work.
In the case of beef and small stock, only animals in the age groups AB, B and C get marked with an MD stamp.
The significance of this is that the marking of male animals can lead to the downgrading of specific carcasses due to various factors like potential taste, meat colour (which might be darker), and occasionally, a different smell.
Buyers often pay less than the standard price for these carcasses due to these reasons.
Who is qualified to grade your meat?
An independent qualified meat classifier at the abattoir determines the different classes of meat. Abattoirs have to work with independent service providers.
“Your A class has a different price than your AB, or B and your C classes. So, if the abattoir directly employs the meat classifier, they can easily influence that person. The regulations were written in a way for independent work,” Ngeleza explains.
Understanding the different nuances in meat classification for beef, lamb, sheep and goats is key to increasing your returns.
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