Venison production is a growing industry. Many deer farmers are producing a wide range of carcass weights and conformation. Most of the farmers producing poor meat animals are unaware of the improvements available to them, or how to measure and achieve their goals.
In a consumer-driven industry, production systems must be adjusted continuously to meet customer demands. Although processors are aware that some carcasses yield more beneficial returns than others, they are unsure of the message they should be sending back to the producer as to the type of animal that should be raised.
Due to the variation of carcasses in the UK, there is a need for some form of carcass classification (grading) system which will ensure specified animals are purchased. In the long term, information can be relayed to the producer on the type of animal to produce in order to meet the specified market.
Before formulating a suitable classification system for deer, knowledge of deer production for meat is essential, along with an understanding of current classifications in use in other places. Some current classification techniques for traditional livestock may be employed to formulate new and innovative ideas on how to set up a new system.
The aim of any deer farmer is to produce venison which is superior to the quality of the meat of wild deer. Researchers have found that the requirements of most of today's sophisticated markets for meat are that it must be lean, tender, attractive, nutritious, consistent and "natural."
The market for venison is different to that of beef, lamb and pork. Venison is promoted at the high value end of the meat market. The top end of any market will take only top quality products, and demands the highest standards of quality assurance programs.
To ensure venison remains in the most appropriate markets, long-term viability is dependent on two main factors:
- knowledge of consumer demand
- ability to produce the raw material, both live animal and carcass, economically and to specification.
As with any animal intended for human consumption, quality is extremely important. Quality encompasses a wide range of attributes including yield, safety, appearance and palatability.
Need for a grading and classification system
Historically, the need for some kind of carcass description with the meat industry resulted from the lengthening of the distribution chain and the decline of face-to-face purchasing. Customers were often unable to see the carcasses prior to purchase. Thus they required a system that would guarantee they received what they paid for.
The importance of such a system came to a head with the increase in the export trade from Australia, New Zealand and South America to the UK. A method of carcass description was introduced to facilitate trade at a distance. This system later took on a promotional significance - a form of export grading system to safeguard the quality of the meat in recipient countries.
Grading in the UK was first used for bacon pigs as part of an attempt to compete with Danish importers. Schemes for grading other pigs, sheep and beef were not promoted until the 1960s.
Grading is defined as the allocation of a grade to carcasses, i.e., best, average and worst. This means that what is deemed as an average carcass by one person could, for example, be the best for someone else. This is why grading was never that popular in the UK: meat traders did not want to purchase a carcass which had been labeled "worst" when it may have been the "best" carcass for their particular market.
The value of a carcass is of great importance at all stages of the meat marketing chain, from farm to retail sale. Both processors and retailers have to meet their customers' requirements.
The carcass value is determined by a number of factors. The principal components are size, attractiveness, saleable meat yield and perceived quality of the meat.
The purpose of carcass grading is different to classification. Grading provides a preconceived idea of quality so that a settlement price can be determined. It is therefore important that procedures used to estimate meat yield and quality on carcasses are precise and repeatable. Grading schemes put different values on carcasses placed in uniform classes. The value is dependent on how useful the carcass is for a particular purpose and, therefore, how much someone is willing to pay for it.
Carcass classification in Great Britain is becoming increasingly mandatory. Current classification is mandatory in any abattoir slaughtering more than 200 pigs per week and in all beef abattoirs. It is likely that in the future it will also be mandatory to classify sheep.
Visual assessment is, and will continue to be, an essential element of beef and sheep classification. Pig classification is "objective", whereas cattle and sheep are "subjective." Pigs are classified using approved introscopes or reflectance-based recording probes for measuring fat and muscle thickness, and more recently sophisticated probes and yield control procedures.
Cattle and sheep cannot be classified by the same method as pigs, as the fat distribution on cattle and sheep is uneven, and the fat between muscles can cause conflicting results.
Visual assessment of beef and sheep has proved to be a system of some considerable strengths and, generally, precision of estimation is high. However, the sensory nature of these assessments has over the years been the cause of much controversy and debate. Inconsistencies have resulted from different operators working at different times of the day/year.
Pig farmers have less reason to complain as currently they use a generally precise and reliable system based on objective measurements.
One of the main reasons for developing a commercial classification scheme is to provide better communication of consumer requirements to the producer by identifying carcasses of different leanness and fatness.
Benefits of a classification system
Carcass classification provides a wide range of information that can be of use to everyone in the meat industry. These include:
1. Feedback to the producer about the type of animals he should be raising to meet the requirements of consumers.
2. Feedback to the abattoir by providing a means of procuring and judging carcasses from different sources, and allocating them to the most appropriate market.
3. Helping customers to specify their needs and reduce variability.
4. Providing a basis for pricing.
5. Providing data for government and the EU.
The description of carcasses in classification schemes enables people to buy and sell them unseen. It also ensures that carcasses go to the most appropriate use.
Classification also aids in marketing, since it leads to product uniformity. Grading systems may produce uniform top grades, but variation in poorer grades. This is due to different definitions of "poor." Hence classification systems use letters e.g., EUROP with UOP sub-divided into upper and lower classes.
Conformation and fatness
The commercial value of a carcass depends ultimately on its size, structure and composition. The main characteristics are:
- muscle, fat, bone and distribution of these
- chemical composition
- visual appearance of tissues and meat quality.
Conformation and fatness are the main factors of a classification system. Conformation is normally defined as the thickness of muscle and fat in relation to the size of the carcass. Subcutaneous fat scores should be the principal index of carcass leanness for use in commercial classification schemes.
In the second part of this article, I will discuss how carcass grading and classification can be applied to farmed venison. In particular, we will look at how New Zealand does it, and how such a system could be set up in Britain.