Will DEXA measure up in the quest for the ‘holy grail’?
This edition of the Agribusiness Bulletin takes a look at Dual Energy X-ray Absorptiometry (DEXA) and how it measures up in the quest for the Objective Carcase Measurement (OCM) ‘holy grail’ – the ability to accurately assess whole animals in a manner that is objective, standardised and repeatable with minimal impact on meat quality or yield.
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Will DEXA measure up in the quest for the ‘holy grail’?
A hot topic in recent times in the livestock sector has been the use of technological solutions for the objective measurement of carcase1 yield and quality, and the possibilities that arise from the adoption of Dual Energy X-ray Absorptiometry (DEXA). While there are benefits for producers and processors, some have concerns over the high costs associated with the technology and the need for more demonstration of the benefits.
In this edition of the Agribusiness Bulletin, we take a closer look at DEXA and how it measures up in the quest for the Objective Carcase Measurement (OCM) ‘holy grail’ – the ability to accurately assess whole animals (or carcases) in a manner that is objective, standardised and repeatable with minimal impact on meat quality or yield.
Currently, carcase grading is a subjective process in the red meat value chain because it relies on a subjective assessment of the carcase, such as its visual quality. This assessment cannot assess internal components of the carcase, such as bone and tissue. As a result, the yield and value of the carcase, which are often used to determine the amount paid to livestock vendors, may be inaccurately measured.
Objective carcase measurement technologies
Non-invasive, OCM technologies, such as DEXA, Computed Tomography (CT) scanning, Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and ultrasound, use different types of energy to measure the composition of a body or carcase tissue. The Advanced Measurement Technologies for Globally Competitive Australia Meat (ALMTech) project is a program targeted towards developing lean meat yield objective measurement technologies for use of live animals and carcases. DEXA has been the technology in focus and initial results have been positive so far with the technology showing high levels of precision for determining lean meat, bone and fat yield in a carcase.2
Teys Australia has committed to the first commercial installation of a DEXA unit in its Rockhampton processing plant, which is to be co-funded by Teys, Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA), Australian Meat Processor Corporation and MLA Donor Company.3 The unit is expected come on-line in the very near term and is expected to process around 200 carcases an hour.
What does DEXA do?
DEXA measures X-rays passing through a body or carcase and is able to distinguish between bone, lean tissue and fat tissue.4
This is an inflection point for the industry as it overcomes the challenge of subjectively assessing the animal and the resulting risks of inaccurate yield and value estimates. Any reduction in these risks will lead to a reduced risk premium exchanged between the buyer and the seller which in turn leads to a more efficient market. It is important to note though that some industry pundits have warned that there could be winners and losers from moving from an averaging basis to a more objective assessment in particular in the short term.
Benefits of DEXA
Improved accuracy and confidence in measuring the quantity and quality of carcases will improve market efficiency and increase confidence and trust between buyers and sellers. The data generated by DEXA will also support industry level research and development as well as marketing.
Modelling on the potential impact of OCM technologies identified around $420 million per annum of potential gross benefits for the industry by 2030 if the technologies are fully adopted, and $250 million per annum by 2030 at current rates of adoption.5
Benefits for processors and producers include the following:
- Additional yield from the carcase though enhanced accountability in boning rooms
- Potential for further automation in plants, such as tailoring boning activities to maximise carcase yield and value.
- Standardised feedback of lean meat yield measures from processors
- Objective data to develop breeding and genetics strategies that improve overall meat quality and meet consumer expectations and tastes
- Objective data to select optimum nutrition regimes and enhance animal feed conversion performance.
The need for more data on the use and benefits of DEXA
While OCM in the red meat industry is gaining momentum, industry stakeholders have voiced concerns about the lack of supporting evidence for the technology. Some producers and processors are hesitant to invest time and money into potentially expensive technology without extensive research into how the industry will benefit and data to support.6 However key industry players (such as Teys Australia and MLA) have shown their support for the technology through investment and there is growing public recognition of the benefits and possibilities of such technology.
The red meat industry has shown enthusiasm towards experimentation and implementation of non-invasive carcase measurement. While some may be hesitant to invest in its infancy, research and development of related technologies is being encouraged. Of the technologies available, DEXA shows promise in measuring certain carcase traits. Importantly, the adoption of any OCM technology has to be uniform. A national system that has integrity and whole of industry support could provide a basis for an enhanced digital red meat marketing platform. The positive steps taken by various industry parties proves the Australian red meat industry is committed to maintaining its competitive advantage and reputation for producing high quality red meat.
1. Carcase is the term used in Australian agriculture for the body of a slaughtered animal; the alternative form of the term is carcass, which is more commonly used outside of Australian agriculture.
2. “Finding technologies which measure up”. Meat and Livestock Australia: Feedback (May/June 2017) 12-15.
3. “DEXA Technology Revolutionising the Beef Industry”. Teys Australia. (17 May 2017).
4. Technically, DEXA indirectly estimates the three different tissue components by distinguishing between areas that contain soft tissue (both lean and fat tissue), and areas that contain a mix of soft tissue and bone. The next iteration of X-ray technology is likely to be multiple energy x-ray absorptiometry (MEXA) with the ability to simultaneously measure bone, fat and lean tissue components. For more information, please see Stone, M and Turner, A. (2012). “Use of Dual-Energy X-Ray Absorptiometry (DXA) with Non-Human Vertebrates: Application, Challenges, and Practical Considerations for Research and Clinical Practice”, 99-101.
5. “Development of supply chain objective measurement (OM) strategy & value proposition to stakeholders.” Greenleaf, Miracle Dog, Scott Williams Consulting. Commissioned by Meat and Livestock Australia. 8 May 2017.
6. “Meat processors say rollout of objective carcase measurement technology not prudent until commercially tested.” The Age, 27 February 2017.