Beef grades were introduced by USDA in 1926 to provide wholesalers and retailers a uniform, government-backed method of assessing the quality of the meat. Along the way, consumers came to rely on grades as a determinant of beef quality.

Using machines to grade carcasses has been discussed since 1978. That's when the General Accounting Office told Congress that, in order to improve accuracy and uniformity, USDA should “increase research efforts to develop instruments to accurately measure beef carcass characteristics.”

In 1979, ultrasound and video image analysis (VIA) was identified as technology that might help reach that goal. VIA is at the core of instrument grading today.

It wasn't until 1994 that the beef industry began funding the research necessary to get the ball rolling. That year, the National Live Stock and Meat Board created the first National Beef Instrument Assessment Plan and began funding projects to move toward the goal.

As a result, in 2003, USDA's Ag Marketing Service adopted VIA performance standards for predicting ribeye area, and standards for predicting yield grades in 2005. In 2006, the agency adopted standards for prediction of marbling scores. In 2007, the first VIA system was approved for applying yield grades.

Although grading technology is advancing, the overall purpose and philosophy is not. The new technology, though, will move the program significantly into the 21st century.

“The grading service has served us well through the years, and they've modified operations as they've seen the need,” according to Cactus Feeders' Mike Engler. “While it's been good, it can be better as we go forward. And instrument grading gives us lots of opportunities.”