[Federal Register Volume 82, Number 116 (Monday, June 19, 2017)]
[Notices]
[Pages 27782-27786]
From the Federal Register Online via the Government Publishing Office [www.gpo.gov]
[FR Doc No: 2017-12647]


========================================================================
Notices
                                                Federal Register
________________________________________________________________________

This section of the FEDERAL REGISTER contains documents other than rules 
or proposed rules that are applicable to the public. Notices of hearings 
and investigations, committee meetings, agency decisions and rulings, 
delegations of authority, filing of petitions and applications and agency 
statements of organization and functions are examples of documents 
appearing in this section.

========================================================================


Federal Register / Vol. 82, No. 116 / Monday, June 19, 2017 / 
Notices

[[Page 27782]]



DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE

Agricultural Marketing Service

[Doc. No. AMS-LPS-16-0060-0001]


United States Standards for Grades of Carcass Beef

AGENCY: Agricultural Marketing Service, USDA.

ACTION: Notice; request for comments.

-----------------------------------------------------------------------

SUMMARY: The Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) of the U.S. 
Department of Agriculture (USDA) is proposing amendments to the United 
States Standards for Grades of Carcass Beef (beef standards). 
Specifically, AMS is proposing amendments to the beef standards that 
would allow dentition and documentation of actual age as additional 
methods of classifying maturity of carcasses presented to USDA for 
official quality grading. Currently, the standards include only 
skeletal and muscular evidence as a determination of classifying 
maturity of carcasses for the purposes of official USDA quality 
grading. Official USDA quality grading is used as an indication of meat 
palatability and is a major determining factor in live cattle and beef 
value.

DATES: Submit comments on or before August 18, 2017.

ADDRESSES: Interested persons are invited to submit comments 
electronically at https://www.regulations.gov. Written comments may be 
sent to: Beef Carcass Revisions, Standardization Branch, Quality 
Assessment Division (QAD); Livestock, Poultry, and Seed Program (LPS), 
AMS, USDA; 1400 Independence Avenue SW., Room 3932-S, STOP 0258, 
Washington, DC 20250-0258. Comments may also be emailed to 
[email protected]. Submitted comments will be available 
for public inspection at https://www.regulations.gov, or during regular 
business hours at the above address. Please be advised that the 
identity of the individuals or entities submitting the comments will be 
made public on the Internet at the address provided above.

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Bucky Gwartney, International 
Marketing Specialist, Standardization Branch, QAD, LPS, AMS, USDA, 1400 
Independence Avenue SW., Room 3932-S, STOP 0258, Washington, DC 20250-
0258, phone (202) 720-1424, or via email at 
[email protected].

SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION: Section 203(c) of the Agricultural Marketing 
Act of 1946, as amended (7 U.S.C. 1621 et seq.), directs and authorizes 
the Secretary of Agriculture ``to develop and improve standards of 
quality, condition, quantity, grade, and packaging and recommend and 
demonstrate such standards in order to encourage uniformity and 
consistency in commercial practices.'' AMS is committed to carrying out 
this authority in a manner that facilitates the marketing of 
agricultural commodities. While the beef standards do not appear in the 
Code of Federal Regulations, they--along with other official 
standards--are maintained by USDA at https://www.ams.usda.gov/grades-standards. Copies of official standards are also available upon 
request. To propose changes to the beef standards, AMS utilizes the 
procedures it published in the August 13, 1997, Federal Register, and 
that appear in 7 CFR part 36.

Background

    The beef standards and associated voluntary, fee-for-service beef 
grading service program are authorized under the Agricultural Marketing 
Act of 1946, as amended. The primary purpose of official USDA grade 
standards is to divide the population of a commodity into uniform 
groups (of similar quality, yield, value, etc.) to facilitate 
marketing. The USDA's voluntary, fee-for-service grading programs are 
designed to provide an independent, objective determination as to 
whether a given product is in conformance with the applicable official 
standard. When beef is voluntarily graded to the beef standards under 
the grading service, the official grade consists of a quality grade 
and/or a yield grade.
    The quality grades are intended to identify differences in the 
palatability or eating satisfaction of cooked beef principally through 
the characteristics of marbling and physiological maturity groupings. 
As noted in the standards referenced above, the principal official USDA 
quality grades for young (maturity groups ``A'' and ``B'') cattle and 
carcasses are Prime, Choice, and Select, in descending order in terms 
of historic market value. USDA recognizes that the beef standards must 
be relevant in order to be of greatest value to stakeholders and, 
therefore, recommendations for changes in the standards may be 
initiated by USDA or by interested parties at any time to achieve that 
goal.
    For beef, USDA quality grades provide a simple, effective means of 
describing product that is easily understood by both buyers and 
sellers. By identifying separate and distinct segments of beef, grades 
enable buyers to obtain the particular kind of beef that meets their 
individual needs. For example, certain restaurants may choose to only 
sell officially graded USDA Prime beef so as to provide their customers 
with a product that meets a very consistent level of overall 
palatability. At the same time, grades are important in transmitting 
information to cattle producers to help ensure informed production, 
feeding, and marketing decisions are made. For example, the market 
preference and price paid for a particular grade of beef is 
communicated to cattle producers so they can adjust their production 
accordingly. In such a case, if the price premium being paid for a 
grade, such as USDA Prime beef, merits producers making the investments 
required in cattle genetics and feeding to produce more USDA Prime 
beef, such marketing decisions can be made with justification.

Current Process for Determining Maturity

    Since its inclusion in the beef standards, physiological maturity 
based on skeletal and muscular evidence has been the means for 
establishing age of animals in both marketing standards and in 
research. USDA graders examine signs of physiological maturity (e.g., 
size, shape, and ossification of the bones and cartilages--especially 
the split chine bones--and color, texture, and

[[Page 27783]]

firmness of the lean flesh) in order to assign a maturity grouping. 
Although never intended to be a definitive method to determine the 
chronological age of cattle at the time of slaughter and instead 
utilized to predict beef palatability, the maturity groupings have 
historically been roughly correlated to different age ranges and 
categories: Maturity grouping A was correlated with beef from cattle 
between 9 and 30 months of age (MOA) at time of slaughter, maturity 
grouping B was correlated with beef from cattle between 30 and 42 MOA 
at time of slaughter, maturity grouping C was correlated with beef from 
cattle between 42 and 72 MOA at time of slaughter, maturity grouping D 
was correlated with beef from cattle between 72 and 96 MOA at time of 
slaughter, and maturity grouping E was correlated with beef from cattle 
more than 96 MOA at time of slaughter. However, these are rough 
approximations that are influenced by other factors including sex, 
nutrition, growth promotant administration, reproductive status, breed, 
and a variety of other environmental factors. Therefore, cattle that 
are younger than 30 MOA may have a physiological maturity grouping of B 
or greater due to the factors listed above.
    Generally, A-maturity carcasses are eligible for Prime, Choice, 
Select, and Standard quality grades; B-maturity carcasses are eligible 
for Prime, Choice, or Standard; and C-, D-, or E-maturity carcasses are 
eligible for Commercial, Utility, Cutter, or Canner. In most fed beef 
plants, carcasses that fit the C-, D-, or E-maturity categories (often 
referred to as ``hard bones'') are not presented for USDA grading.
    The beef standards have had past revisions made to the maturity 
grouping requirements, and these revisions resulted in classifications 
that were designed to reduce the variability of eating quality within 
the grades. The most recent such change occurred in 1997 when certain 
carcasses from the B-maturity grouping were no longer eligible for the 
USDA Select quality grade. The official standards have never relied 
upon any other indicator besides physiological maturity to determine 
maturity grouping or the resulting USDA quality grade. This was 
primarily because the use of physiological maturity was not intended to 
be used to predict the age of an animal at time of slaughter but rather 
the resulting palatability of the meat.
    Many years of research have demonstrated a correlation between 
physiological maturity and beef palatability, and the factors affecting 
the physiological maturity of a beef animal are numerous. It is well-
documented that elevated levels of estrogen, found in heifers and 
heiferettes (females that have calved once), result in advanced 
skeletal ossification. Estrogen is also higher in those animals being 
administered growth implants containing estrogen and estrogen-like 
compounds and possibly those animals fed and exposed to naturally 
occurring estrogens in their diet. Animals having an elevated exposure 
to estrogen are much more likely to result in B- or C-maturity 
carcasses, and this advanced skeletal maturity is more prevalent the 
closer the animal is to 30 MOA.
    The scientific literature also indicates that the meat in younger 
cattle contains immature and soluble collagen that when cooked does not 
negatively impact the tenderness of the product. As an animal matures, 
the collagen will become more mature and have more thermally stable 
cross-links, resulting in a tougher product. However, when grain-
finished cattle are evaluated at various ages (12 to 35 months) and 
skeletal maturities (A to C), the resulting differences in tenderness 
are minimal. Scientific studies support this phenomenon, explained by 
the faster turnover of both the muscle fibers and the connective tissue 
within the animal due to faster growth and higher concentrate diets. An 
overview of many of these factors is discussed by Tatum, 2011.\1\
---------------------------------------------------------------------------

    \1\ J.D. Tatum, 2011. Animal Age, physiological maturity, and 
associated effects on beef tenderness. White Paper funded by the 
Cattlemen's Beef Promotion and Research Board.
---------------------------------------------------------------------------

Dentition

    Although not used as part of the voluntary grading process, 
dentition has been used in the U.S. since 2004 by the USDA's Food 
Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) in all federally inspected plants 
to determine whether an animal is less than or older than 30 MOA. FSIS 
Directive 6100.4 explains that ``[i]nspection program personnel are to 
consider cattle to be 30 months and older when the examination of the 
dentition of the animal shows that at least one of the second set of 
permanent incisors (I2) has erupted above the gum line.'' Cattle older 
than 30 MOA must have certain specified risk materials, such as the 
vertebral column, removed from their carcasses before the sale of the 
resulting beef cuts. In addition to the visual inspection of permanent 
incisors, FSIS personnel will accept documentation showing the actual 
age of the animal. Age verification involves providing the proper 
paperwork or other proof of an animal's actual age (e.g., less than 30 
MOA) and is also used for a variety of purposes, including meeting 
foreign market requirements for U.S. beef from cattle under a certain 
age.
    Current research has indicated that carcasses from grain-fed steers 
and heifers that are identified as less than 30 MOA based on dentition 
are similar in palatability to A-maturity carcasses determined via 
physiological maturity and thus could be classified A-maturity for 
grading purposes even though the physiological maturity characteristics 
of B- or older maturity groupings may be present. When comparisons 
involve grain-finished steers and heifers that are less than 30 MOA, 
the age of the animal has been shown to have little effect on beef 
tenderness. In addition, numerous studies have evaluated the 
relationship between the skeletal maturity of an animal and its 
dentition pattern. In two experiments, described by Lawrence et al., 
2001, 1,464 cattle were evaluated for physiological maturity and 
dentition characteristics.\2\ These studies showed that 97.5 percent of 
cattle with 2 permanent incisors (the cutoff point for less than 30 
MOA) were classified as A-maturity carcasses. In that study, the 
authors suggest that dentition is a more accurate determinant of 
carcass maturity, although they have no evidence that dentition is 
better able to predict palatability. This is supported by other 
research showing that dentition is more closely related to actual 
chronological age than is physiological maturity.
---------------------------------------------------------------------------

    \2\ Lawrence, T.E., J.D. Whatley, T.H. Montgomery and L.J. 
Perino. 2001. A comparison of the USDA ossification based maturity 
system to a system based on dentition. Journal of Animal Science, 
79:1683-1690.
---------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Two recent studies funded by the Cattlemen's Beef Promotion and 
Research Board evaluated the relationship between eating quality and 
the skeletal maturity of carcasses that were classified by dentition as 
either less than 30 MOA or greater than 30 MOA. The first study \3\ 
(Acheson et. al., 2014) sampled 450 grain-finished steer and heifer 
carcasses classified as less than 30 MOA through dentition, with 
varying skeletal maturity and marbling scores. Trained sensory panels 
and slice shear force (SSF) testing were conducted and neither analysis 
determined a difference between steaks from the A-maturity versus the 
B- through C-maturity carcasses. Marbling categories were effective in 
stratifying carcasses according to differences in

[[Page 27784]]

tenderness and juiciness. Results from that study suggest A-C-maturity 
carcasses have similar sensory and SSF scores when they originate from 
grain-finished cattle classified as less than 30 MOA by dentition.
---------------------------------------------------------------------------

    \3\ Acheson, R.J., Woerner, D.R., and Tatum, J.D. 2014. Effects 
of USDA carcass maturity on sensory attributes of beef produced by 
grain-finished steers and heifers classified as less than 30 months 
old using dentition. Journal of Animal Science, 92:1792-1799.
---------------------------------------------------------------------------

    The second study \4\ (Semler et. al., 2016) evaluated the 
tenderness of steaks from 600 steer and heifer carcasses that varied in 
marbling, skeletal maturity, and age by dentition. Tenderness was also 
evaluated by trained sensory panels and SSF testing. The results were 
consistent with those from the first study and showed that the 
tenderness between USDA maturity classifications (A versus B-D) was not 
different within dental age (less than 30 MOA or greater than 30 MOA). 
Steaks from carcasses greater than 30 MOA did have more intense grassy 
and bloody/serum flavors and decreased tenderness within the slight 
degree of marbling group. As in the first study, the degree of marbling 
was effective in stratifying carcasses according to differences in 
tenderness and juiciness.
---------------------------------------------------------------------------

    \4\ Semler, M.L, D.R. Woerner, K.E. Belk, K.J. Enns, and J.D. 
Tatum. 2016. Journal of Animal Science, 94:2207-2217. Effects of 
United States Department of Agriculture carcass maturity on sensory 
attributes of steaks produced by cattle representing two dental age 
classes.
---------------------------------------------------------------------------

Request for a Change to the Beef Standards

    On April 13, 2016, representatives from the National Cattlemen's 
Beef Association, the National Association of State Departments of 
Agriculture, the U.S. Meat Export Federation, and the American Farm 
Bureau Federation petitioned USDA to amend the beef standards. The 
petition to amend the beef standards (the petition) seeks to amend them 
by allowing age verification or dentition-based assessment to determine 
carcass maturity in fed steers and heifers. Both the petition and 
associated research are available at https://www.ams.usda.gov/grades-standards/beef-request-for-comments.
    In consideration of the body of research, the petition requested 
that USDA revise the beef standards by adding the following language to 
section 54.104(k) of the beef standards that describes the skeletal 
maturity:

    Carcasses of grain-fed steers and heifers determined to be less 
than 30 months old either by dentition (assessed at the time of 
slaughter under the supervision of USDA-FSIS) or by documentation of 
actual age (verified through a USDA Process Verified Program or USDA 
Quality System Assessment) are included in the youngest maturity 
group for carcasses recognized as ``beef'' (A and B maturity) 
regardless of skeletal evidences of maturity.

    The petition stated that approximately 7.2 percent of cattle 
classified as less than 30 months of age exhibit premature skeletal 
ossification, and so rather than qualifying as A-maturity (the youngest 
maturity classification in the beef standards), they qualify as B-
maturity or older and are subject to discounts that reduce the overall 
value of the carcass.
    AMS was also provided a large data set from a recent study of beef 
packing plant slaughter and performed a statistical and economic 
analysis on the data to determine the possible impact should the 
proposed change to the beef standards be adopted. The results of this 
review were published in a May 19, 2016, document, ``Economic 
Assessment of the Request to Modernize the U.S. Standards for Grades of 
Carcass Beef'', and is available at the aforementioned Web site. The 
study period ranged from the beginning of May 2014 through the end of 
April 2015. Extrapolating the study data across the total population of 
cattle graded each year by AMS--approximately 21 million--resulted in 
the following:
     Seventy-two percent were slaughtered in facilities 
participating in the study;
     Ninety-seven percent were found to be less than 30 MOA 
using dentition;
     Less than 3 percent (2.8) were found to be equal to or 
greater than 30 MOA;
     Less than 2 percent (1.68) were deemed to be age-
discounted when using skeletal ossification as the measure of maturity 
grouping; and
     Less than one-half of 1 percent of the total cattle graded 
were age-verified.
    According to the study, had there been an allowance to use 
dentition as a means to override physiological characteristics of 
advanced maturity grouping, as was proposed, roughly an additional 1 
percent of those cattle would have been eligible for grading. Of these 
cattle, 4.5 percent would have been graded Prime, 63.6 percent Choice, 
and 31.9 percent Select. Within the Choice category, 24.4 percent of 
all newly graded carcasses would have been placed in the top two-thirds 
Choice category (branded Choice programs), and 39.2 percent of all 
added carcasses would have been placed in the bottom of the Choice 
category. In addition, lean and skeletal maturity requirements are 
referenced throughout many of the current USDA Certified Beef Programs 
and the General Schedules. Upon request, USDA provides certification of 
meat carcasses for a number of marketing programs that make claims 
concerning breed and carcass characteristics. If the proposed changes 
to the beef standards are made, users of these certified programs 
should evaluate their specifications closely and recommend any needed 
changes to USDA.
    The grade composition of the carcasses being added by using 
dentition as a measure of age was not much different than the grade 
composition of carcasses graded using physiological maturity, and 
overall, these data show an increase of 1.05 percent for Prime beef, 
0.91 percent for Choice, and 1.29 percent for Select. According to 
calculations made from wholesale beef elasticity, wholesale beef prices 
could decline between 1 to 1.5 percent for each of the grade categories 
as a result of the increased supply of graded beef. Using this data, 
AMS found a net gain to producers of nearly $55 million, primarily due 
to reduced hard bone discounts for quality grade maturity grouping done 
by the current physiological maturity approach alone.

Previous Solicitation for Comments

    This information was published by USDA in a Notice in the Federal 
Register (81 FR 57877) on August 24, 2016, which sought public comment 
on whether or not to amend the beef standards. AMS received 236 total 
comments. Of those comments, 179 commenters favored revising the beef 
standards to include dentition and documented age as additional methods 
for maturity classification. There were 53 commenters who did not 
support making the changes. Two comments were submitted in duplicate 
and one comment was submitted in triplicate; each of these respective 
submissions was counted only once. It is noteworthy that 160 of the 179 
favorable comments were the same form letter and were from producers. 
Comments can be viewed at https://www.regulations.gov/document?D=AMS-LPS-16-0060-0001.
    The vast majority of comments were received from the producer 
segment of the industry. Commenters who supported the changes cited an 
anticipated increase in the number of carcasses that would qualify for 
USDA grades of Prime, Choice, and Select without a significant 
reduction in palatability for those grades; the anticipated 
profitability producers would gain by having carcasses grade or grade 
higher; and support for the science-based Cattlemen's Beef Promotion 
and Research Board-funded research. Many agricultural associations, 
which represent a majority of cattle producers, provided favorable 
comments in support of the changes. In addition, most major packing 
companies provided positive comments in support

[[Page 27785]]

of the changes. The potential increase in Prime and Choice carcasses, 
along with premiums to the producers, were the primary factors cited 
for their support.
    Commenters opposed to changing the beef standard identified various 
issues of concern, and these are further discussed below. Although 
there were 53 individual comments that did not support a revision to 
the beef standards, many responses raised multiple issues. Therefore, 
as we examine each category of concern, the total figures mentioned 
will exceed a sum of 53. Seventeen commenters believed the populations 
in the referenced studies were too small. In response, AMS has 
determined that all studies referenced herein--including those that 
found that carcasses exhibiting advanced skeletal maturity when 
determined by dentition to be under 30 MOA produced meat that was as 
palatable in taste tests as meat produced from carcasses that did not 
exhibit signs of advanced skeletal maturity--were peer-reviewed and 
adequately designed to answer the study objectives and hypotheses. 
Statistical significance and statistical power of the test will in fact 
increase with an increased sample size, in small increments, but add 
significant costs.
    There were 24 commenters who questioned the value of dentition in 
predicting age, and 1 commenter pointed out that the beef standards are 
not designed to predict age, but instead palatability. In response, AMS 
notes that recent research suggests that dentition is a more accurate 
determinant of carcass maturity and is more closely related to actual 
chronological age than is USDA physiological maturity. As briefly 
discussed above, studies by Lawrence showed that 97.5 percent of cattle 
with 2 permanent incisors (the cutoff point for less than 30 MOA) were 
classified as A-maturity carcasses.
    One commenter suggested that a change to the beef standards was not 
warranted given the relatively small percentage of cattle (and 
subsequent carcasses) affected by the change. While the economic study 
performed by USDA shows an approximate potential increase of 1 percent 
in the Choice and Prime categories, AMS believes this is a significant 
value proposition for both the beef production and processing sectors. 
USDA is not proposing this change because of the number of cattle that 
will be affected or the economic benefit. Instead, USDA is proposing to 
revise the beef standards because current scientific research has 
presented another acceptable means for determining the maturity of a 
beef carcass.
    Thirteen commenters expressed concern about the dentition process 
overseen by FSIS and the perceived lack of training for the employees 
responsible for this procedure. FSIS has clear guidelines and 
procedures for the evaluation of dentition on cattle, and this 
procedure has been ongoing for many years with little to no concerns 
being raised by domestic or international users of U.S. beef products. 
Several of these commenters also suggested that, while they believe 
FSIS is properly overseeing the dentition process through trained plant 
personnel, they believe AMS must have involvement in the process if 
that dentition determination will ultimately become a factor in the 
application of a voluntary USDA grade. In response to this concern, AMS 
would require that plants provide their procedures for marking and 
identification of cattle greater than 30 MOA. AMS would also verify 
these procedures are being adhered to through a Quality Systems 
Assessment audit or other means. AMS is also proposing a procedure and 
change to the standard that would allow the AMS grader to refrain from 
grading an under-30-MOA carcass that exhibits advanced skeletal 
maturity (e.g., D- and E-skeletal maturity). While this may occur 
infrequently, providing a procedure for AMS graders to evaluate 
advanced skeletal carcasses that are identified as under 30 MOA 
protects the grading system and ensures that carcasses exhibiting 
advanced skeletal maturity never qualify for Prime, Choice, Select, or 
Standard.
    Twenty commenters suggested that these changes would cheapen U.S. 
beef. It is important to note that the majority of grain-finished 
cattle are harvested at 12 to 24 MOA and usually produce A-maturity 
beef. In other words, the vast majority of cattle offered for grading 
will not be affected at all by this proposed change. That said, a 
percentage of carcasses that today are evaluated as B- or C-maturity 
but are produced from cattle under 30 MOA would be eligible for grading 
under the proposed system. Based on AMS's estimates outlined in 
``Economic Assessment of the Request to Modernize the U.S. Standards 
for Grades of Carcass Beef,'' roughly an additional 1 percent of cattle 
would be eligible for grading. The research outlined here does not show 
any trends towards an inferior product being produced if dentition is 
implemented.
    Lastly, 15 commenters raised concerns over how the proposed changes 
would be implemented and differ from current practices. Implementing 
the use of dentition in plants for the determination of beef quality 
grades would require minimal changes to an AMS grader's day-to-day 
activities. There may be plant-specific requirements and changes needed 
regarding the identification procedures for carcasses less than 30 MOA 
and greater than 30 MOA, but these procedures are currently being 
carried out in-plant. Carcasses deemed less than 30 MOA would be sorted 
and the grader would then perform his or her normal marbling assessment 
to apply the final quality grade. Consistent with the current 
practices, any carcasses deemed greater than 30 MOA would be marked by 
the plant and graded by an AMS grader using skeletal and lean 
characteristics to determine maturity and then marbling.

Summary of Proposed Changes to the Beef Standards

    In consideration of the approximately three-fourths of commenters 
who supported revising the beef standards, as well as the research 
supporting their modernization, USDA is issuing this Notice outlining 
proposed changes. These changes would allow dentition and documentation 
of actual age to be used to classify beef carcasses as A-maturity and 
determine eligibility for all quality grade classifications, with the 
exception of those carcasses exhibiting advanced skeletal maturity 
traits (as described for D- and E-maturity).
    USDA proposes to provide additional oversight of the dentition 
process used to classify carcasses as either less than 30 MOA or 
greater than 30 MOA. FSIS approves plant personnel to examine the 
dentition and FSIS inspectors to monitor the process to ensure 
carcasses greater than 30 MOA have been correctly identified. However, 
because this process would now be instrumental to the subsequent 
application of a USDA quality grade, AMS personnel must have knowledge 
of the process including marking and identification techniques for 
cattle greater than 30 MOA. AMS would review this process on a regular 
basis through an existing Quality System Assessment audit or other 
means. In many beef packing plants, AMS already reviews the dentition 
process as part of an export verification audit and the applicant makes 
these procedures available to the USDA grader.
    USDA proposes to allow carcasses identified as less than 30 MOA 
through dentition or actual documented age (through an approved USDA 
Process Verified Program or Quality System Assessment Program) to 
qualify for the USDA Prime, Choice, Select and Standard grades, 
regardless of skeletal and lean characteristics. This proposal

[[Page 27786]]

means that for carcasses deemed less than 30 MOA, the amount and 
distribution of marbling will become the primary characteristics for 
determining the final USDA quality grade. Carcasses identified as 
greater than 30 MOA through dentition are eligible for all USDA grades, 
with application of skeletal and lean characteristics factored in the 
determination, as currently described in the beef standards.
    USDA is not proposing any changes to the requirements for carcasses 
exhibiting dark cutting lean, regardless of age verification method. 
Carcasses exhibiting dark cutting lean will be graded as currently 
described in the beef standards.
    Proposed amendments to the beef standards are described below:

United States Standards for Grades of Carcass Beef

54.104--Application of Standards for Grades of Carcass Beef

    1. Amend 54.104 by revising paragraph (k) to read as follows:
    (k) For steer, heifer, and cow beef, quality of the lean is 
evaluated by considering its marbling, color, and firmness as observed 
in a cut surface, in relation to carcass evidences of maturity. The 
maturity of the carcass is determined through one of three methods:
    (1) Dentition as monitored by the Food Safety and Inspection 
Service (FSIS). Carcasses determined to be less than 30 months of age 
(MOA) will be classified as A-maturity, and with the exception of dark 
cutting lean characteristics, the final quality grade will be 
determined by the degree of marbling. Any carcasses under 30 MOA 
exhibiting advanced skeletal maturity traits (as described for D- and 
E-maturity) will not be eligible for the Prime, Choice, Select, or 
Standard grades and will be graded according to their skeletal, lean, 
and marbling traits accordingly;
    (2) Documentation of age as verified through USDA-approved programs 
and by FSIS at the slaughter facility. Carcasses determined to be less 
than 30 MOA by age verification will be classified as A-maturity and, 
with the exception of dark cutting lean characteristics, the final 
quality grade will be determined by the degree of marbling. Any 
carcasses under 30 MOA exhibiting advanced skeletal maturity traits (as 
described for D- and E-maturity) will not be eligible for the Prime, 
Choice, Select, or Standard grades and will be graded according to 
their skeletal, lean, and marbling traits accordingly; or
    (3) Through evaluation of the size, shape, and ossification of the 
bones and cartilages, especially the split chine bones, and the color 
and texture of the lean flesh. Carcasses determined to be greater than 
30 MOA will be eligible for all quality grade classifications with the 
final quality grade being determined by the evaluation of the degree of 
marbling and any adjustment factors based on advanced skeletal maturity 
characteristics. In the split chine bones, ossification changes occur 
at an earlier stage of maturity in the posterior portion of the 
vertebral column (sacral vertebrae) and at progressively later stages 
of maturity in the lumbar and thoracic vertebrae. The ossification 
changes that occur in the cartilages on the ends of the split thoracic 
vertebrae are especially useful in evaluating maturity and these 
vertebrae are referred to frequently in the standards. Unless otherwise 
specified in the standards, whenever reference is made to the 
ossification of cartilages on the thoracic vertebrae, this shall be 
construed to refer to the cartilages attached to the thoracic vertebrae 
at the posterior end of the forequarter. The size and shape of the rib 
bones are also important considerations in evaluating differences in 
maturity. In the very youngest carcasses considered as ``beef,'' the 
cartilages on the ends of the chine bones show no ossification, 
cartilage is evident on all of the vertebrae of the spinal column, and 
the sacral vertebrae show distinct separation. In addition, the split 
vertebrae usually are soft and porous and very red in color. In such 
carcasses, the rib bones have only a slight tendency toward flatness. 
In progressively more mature carcasses, ossification changes become 
evident first in the bones and cartilages of the sacral vertebrae, then 
in the lumbar vertebrae, and still later in the thoracic vertebrae. In 
beef that is very advanced in maturity, all the split vertebrae will be 
devoid of red color and very hard and flinty, and the cartilages on the 
ends of all the vertebrae will be entirely ossified. Likewise, with 
advancing maturity, the rib bones will become progressively wider and 
flatter, which is shown in very mature beef whose ribs will be very 
wide and flat.
* * * * *

    Authority:  7 U.S.C. 1621-1627.

    Dated: June 14, 2017.
Bruce Summers,
Acting Administrator, Agricultural Marketing Service.
[FR Doc. 2017-12647 Filed 6-16-17; 8:45 am]
 BILLING CODE 3410-02-P