A consultation has been launched by DAERA on potentially making it mandatory for factories who slaughter over 1,000 sheep/week to grade carcases and report official prices to the Department.

At present in NI, a voluntary system is in place. Factories do grade sheep and also send prices paid to DAERA and the Livestock and Meat Commission. They also facilitate DAERA inspectors to do some periodic checks on the standard of carcase dressing and sheep grading. But while DAERA inspectors can advise where standards have slipped, they have no enforcement power. The latest proposed changes would bring sheep grading in line with the system that applies for both beef and pigs, where factories must dress and grade carcases to a standard set out in legislation and report subsequent prices paid.

Initial proposal

DAERA initially asked for industry views on the issue of sheep grading back in November 2021. Three organisations responded, with both the National Sheep Association (NSA) and the Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) arguing it would improve price transparency in the sector. However, the NI Meat Exporters’ Association (NIMEA), took a different view, pointing out the voluntary arrangement “has worked effectively and efficiently”. The NIMEA response added there are only three part-time sheep processors in NI (Dunbia, ABP Lurgan, ABP Linden) and they each report prices and grade carcases on a consistent basis.

“Given the current pressures on industry, particularly with respect to labour, we do not see legislation in this area as a high priority,” read the NIMEA response.

After considering all stakeholder views, former Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots decided to press on with a mandatory system, hence the latest consultation from DAERA. Similar consultations are also taking place across England, Wales and Scotland. Ultimately, it will be up to the new Stormont Assembly and new DAERA Minister Andrew Muir to put legislation in place.


The proposed new system has a number of implications for NI abattoirs:

  • Grading of sheep will have to be done by qualified persons, licensed by DAERA, similar to what happens with beef grading. If grading falls below required standards, this licence can be revoked.
  • All sheep carcases will have to be dressed to EU standards – these standards clearly specify what can and cannot be removed from the carcase before the weigh scale.
  • The weight of the carcase must be accurate and unrounded (recorded to 0.1kg). The ‘warm weight’ at the scale is deducted by 2% to get the cold weight used for price reporting.
  • Abattoirs will have to provide farmers with full details on those sheep slaughtered at under 12 months, to include weight, grade, price and dressing specification. The data will also have to be sent to DAERA for market analysis and publication.
  • At present, NI factories report prices of sheep weighing 16kg-23.5kg. In Britain it is 12kg-21.5kg, so it is difficult to compare prices across regions. A mandatory system creates the option to align price reporting across the UK.
  • Automated grading

    The other main issue explored in the DAERA document relates to automated grading of sheep carcases and proposals to put in place legislation allowing this to take place in NI. Similar legislation exists for beef and pigs. To be used in a factory, an automated grading machine must be authorised by government, which requires it to be calibrated, and then pass a test.

    The DAERA consultation suggests that the methodology is similar to that used to test machines to grade beef cattle. It means the machine will be assessed against 600 carcases, representative of the UK sheep kill. The grades it produces are then scored against those given by government expert graders from across the UK. The DAERA consultation on mandatory sheep grading closes on 17 March 2024.

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