During my first year at TAMU-Commerce, I have competed in meat judging, a competition where meat carcasses and cuts are evaluated and placed based on their trimness, muscling, and quality. A lot of people are not familiar with the activity and are unaware of what goes into the production and evaluation of meat. To answer your first thoughts,
We do not eat the meat we judge and no...we can't take the meat home.
The meat we judge is actually meat that is sold locally and nationally in stores! Of course, judgers are all trained to follow safety regulations so that the meat safe for the consumer as it goes into the market (don't let that get ya, we are EXTREMELY careful). The safety protocols are strict for both competitors and workers since it is a functional meatpacking plant/facility after all. To even be a registered judger, we have to go through basic training that includes going over rules and regulations (including Personal Protective Equipment [PPE] requirements). Also, students go through HOURS of practice weekly, and eventually, weeks of traveling to packing plants and (if you are a junior college) major university meat labs. Just to understand the basics, here are the categories we go through and the information we must understand to be a successful competitor:
PPE- To enter a facility, we MUST have clean frocks, steel-toed shoes, gloves, earplugs, eye protection (glasses), long pants, and a hard hat on at all times. Everything underneath that gear is completely optional, but being in a cooler all day...you are going to want those layers underneath! Usually, we keep clipboards, our worksheets, marbling cards, ribeye grids, and pencils on us, but we are required to be as sanitized and clean as possible to prevent contamination. For example, if we drop a pencil, we are required to remove our gloves and place them in our pockets BEFORE picking it up and then after we place the pencil back in a pocket, then we can place the gloves back on (to prevent the gloves from touching the ground and them getting in contact with the carcasses). Or if you use cards/grids on the ribeye, they must be cleaned each day you go into the facility. So our evening chores after a day of practice consists of washing frocks and gloves while rinsing off cards in the hotel bathroom. (and boy we had some late nights where we forgot to wash them and we have never been more scared in our lives LOL...but we managed to pull through and get the job done).
Beef/Pork/Lamb Judging- the basics of judging meat is broken down into trimness, muscling, and quality. Within these categories, you must know terms, what to look for, and evaluate which is the best meat for production to the least fitting (you rank carcasses/cuts 1st to 4th, or in other words last). Typically the farther you go into your season, the more you will have pairs to take detailed notes over to differ the two, which is why it is important to know your terms and continuously practice!
Trimness- this area is where you determine the fat within the carcasses and cuts. For lamb and pork judging, this is the TOP factor when deciding which is best or worst (at least when understanding it as a beginner). When judging, you want to point out the trimmest cut of meat because the slimmer and bigger the meat is, the more you will get for your money (because you don't have to cut as much fat off). On top of memorizing factors, you must be able to determine what is underneath the skin sometimes through analyzing the difference between fat and muscle (like a lamb's ribs or even the ham on a pork carcass). *Remember, muscles typically have a defined shape while fat does not.
Muscling- just like you would want a nice and big steak, you want a lot of meat on your carcasses and cuts! When evaluating these, you determine which carcass has the most to least amount of meat (you can tell the muscling in a carcass just as you would when someone works out...the more plump and defined shape they have, the more built they are going to be).
Quality- this includes different focuses for each species, but the two that are common to note in all species are color and marbling (especially in beef)! This is not the most significant factor in pork and lamb (unless you need a tie-breaker), but in beef, it is the top factor. Every species has a different requirement with color; however, you always want to note the most abundant marbling (just be careful with not getting marbling mixed with seam fat). Marbling adds a better taste satisfaction...just think about a prime steak compared to a choice.
Note Taking- as you go through the 10 classes, you have 5 that will require you to answer a series of questions. This is where you test your analyzing abilities and knowledge by taking detailed notes about each carcass or cut. After going through the whole competition, you are given time to study these detailed notes where you will then answer questions by memorizing what you have recorded. It is a lot to think about at first, but the more you practice, the easier it becomes!
Beef Grading- This is where we do something called yield grading and quality grading. It can be a fun portion of the competition, but something that definitely needs to be practiced continuously.
Yield Grading- This section is what I believe is the most challenging part of the competition that can make or break your score. When judging, you are given a time limit to measure 15 ribeye areas, measure the fat, and calculate the yield grade based on the math from its KPH (kidney, heart, pelvic fat) and hot carcass weight. It is a difficult competition because you have to measure the ribeye with what you know in your head...and you cannot use anything as a reference for measuring. The point system goes to a total of 150 points (with the yield grading going from 1.o to 5.9), and you are deducted 1 point for every .1 you are off for each yield grading score.
Quality Grading- When identifying the quality, you look into the marbling and the maturity of 15 different ribeyes. When I say the quality, I am talking about determining if the ribeye is prime, choice, select, standard, etc. To classify its quality, you are going to have to determine the maturity of the carcass through its color and skeletal factors from the most youthful (A maturity) to the oldest (E maturity). After that, you then determine its marbling, which is something like moderately abundant, moderate, slight, etc. You then line it up with a chart you memorize that coordinates the maturity and marbling of the carcass with its classified name.
Here is an example that I found online that demonstrates the different lean maturity through color identification. You also have to consider the skeletal maturity when looking at the whole carcass in order to balance it out to the maturity you think best suits the carcass.
Although that is not EVERYTHING that goes into meat judging, it is the beginning basics that I started out with as a judger! The American Meat Science Association (AMSA) has done well with putting these events and competitions together every year, and I'm truly honored to be part of a fantastic organization. I have been able to build so many relationships within the program and have obtained knowledge and skills within meat science. In our inaugural year, TAMU-Commerce has taken 2 grand champion titles and has had its members maintain in the top ten every competition, including myself. If it weren't for a passionate team and a driven coach, we would not be where we are today, and I cannot emphasize how grateful I am to be part of this organization. As the year becomes more and more unpredictable, I sure hope that we continue with the season somehow, so we can proceed in doing what we love. Whether or not we get through finishing off our season, I can say that AMSA will be doing their absolute best in finding the best solution for the events everyone is enduring at the moment.