Robot butchers might one day cut our steaks

Meatpacking firm JBS looks to automation for processing beef. But are humans still best at knowing how to cut the perfect sirloin?

Next time you eat a steak, ponder the idea of a robot butcher.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Many of us enjoy sinking our teeth into a New York steak and can't imagine breakfast without a few strips of bacon. But even with the farm-to-table trend propelled in part by foodie bloggers, many of us also never contemplate how our favorite meat products went from mooing in a pasture or oinking around a pen to sitting on our plates.

This is where large meat-processing plants come into play. Those large companies are looking to cut down on overhead costs, namely human employees. And those humans could one day be replaced by, you guessed it, robots.

The world's largest meatpacking firm, JBS, bought a controlling share of the New Zealand-based robotics firm, Scott Technology just last year.

Scott Technology creates sophisticated machines to help companies to do things like milk cows and debone sheep, but they haven't quite mastered the fine art of butchery.

Being a good butcher means more than eyeballing a side of beef and knowing exactly how to cut the perfect steak via sight. You have to feel for bones, tendons and muscles, and that's just something robots don't know how to do quite yet.

"When you get into that detailed, skilled cutting, robots aren't there yet. Someday, I'm sure they will be," the president of JBS' beef division, Bill Rupp, told NPR in a piece that ran Tuesday. This could mean cheaper operating costs for companies, but it might also mean less dangerous work for employees who find themselves wearing out quickly from the kind of repetitive motions and strenuous tasks that give meatpacking plant jobs the reputation of having such a high turnover rate.

Of course, Scott Technology hasn't revealed just how it plans to build the kind of human-replacement robots knowledgeable enough to understand how to feel through animal flesh to make the best cuts. But it sounds like JBS thinks it's already made a smart investment.

"This is a very innovative and exciting company that we invested in," JBS spokesman Cameron Bruett told NPR. "And we're excited to see what they'll come up with."

JBS and Scott Technology did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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