When the National Beef Quality Audit (NBQA) was first launched back in 1991, the beef industry was facing some daunting challenges – beef demand was spiraling downward and the product cattlemen were producing and selling to consumers didn’t meet their wants and desires.

Through the Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) program, cattlemen rose to meet the challenge; 20 years later, many of the quality defects identified in the early audits have largely been corrected. The industry changed production practices, became more consumer-focused, and began producing a product that consumers were willing to buy and consume.

According to the 2011 NBQA, however, while those early challenges have been met, the landscape of the industry, and of society, has changed. And that means cattlemen, in an effort to keep producing the kind of beef consumers demand, will need to address and meet a different set of challenges – challenges that are perhaps a little harder for the industry to wrap its collective arms around.

What the research found

The 2011 NBQA was conducted in three phases over 11 months.

 Phase I involved face-to-face interviews in each production sector. Some conclusions from the interviews were:

• Terminology about quality among segments is not standardized.

• According to interview participants, consumers want to know more about the beef they consume, how it’s raised and where it comes from.

• Food safety is the single most important quality attribute to packers, foodservice and retailers.

• While the industry produces a safe, high-quality product, continuous improvement in these areas should be an industry-wide focus.

• The entire industry prides itself on humane animal treatment, but segments closer to the consumer have additional customer/societal pressures to ensure humane treatment.

• The industry must do a better job telling its story.

Phase II involved a comprehensive evaluation of around 18,000 carcasses. Results from this research include:

• Individual animal ID has increased. The number of cattle individually identified with visual tags jumped from 38.7% in 2005 to 50.6% in 2011.

• An increasing number of carcasses are grading USDA Choice and Prime. This suggests continued improvement in product eating quality.

• Instrument grading was not found to be notably different than human cooler grading. These results may accelerate the trend toward more instrument grading.

• Carcass size has increased significantly, but along with that, average quality grades have improved. This suggests the industry has made strides in selection and management, especially at the feedyard.

• The trend toward more branded beef at the supermarket was supported by both Phase 1 and Phase II research. This suggests a need for more program cattle.

Phase III involved a survey of 3,755 cattle producers, who helped identify the adoption of BQA management principles. Results include:

• Nearly 90% of producers have a working relationship with their veterinarian. However, about a quarter said they would use medications other than as directed on the label without being directed by a vet.

• Use of electric prods is becoming rare. Overall, 98.4% said they do not use an electric prod as their primary driving tool.

• Progress continues to be made in the quality areas identified in the 1991 audit. The preferred route of administration for injections is subcutaneous (84.2%) and 87% said their preferred location for injections is in front of the shoulder.

• About 78% had attended a meeting at which best management practices or BQA principles had been discussed. Of those cow-calf producers who had attended a BQA session, 99% said they followed best management practices consistent with BQA.