Cattlemen deserve a pat on the back for the improvements they’ve made in the quality of the fed cattle over the past 15-20 years, says Art Wagner, head buyer for National Beef Packing Company. “In our two Kansas plants (Liberal and Dodge City), we have 70 different sorts,” he says, as a result of the many different programs the packer engages in. “We wouldn’t be able to fill these branded programs if we didn’t have improving quality over the years.”

And it all ties back to the industry’s beef quality audits and the BQA program. Look back at 1991, when the first audit was performed, he says, and then note the improvements since then because of industry cooperation and awareness. “I think it’s been an unmitigated success in the ability for all of us to sit down and talk.”

That improvement manifests itself in many ways, he says. “We don’t have as many injection sites as we used to. We do see them, but the frequency is less.” Quality grade is better, too, he says, and record-keeping systems allow cattlemen to better take advantage of source and age premiums. And National sees fewer bruises on cattle, thanks to better cattle handling practices.

So what lies ahead? “First and foremost, we’ve got to stay vigilant on our successes. We can’t back up on carcass injection sites or bruising. We don’t see a lot of them, but at the same time, one’s too many.”

Now that the BQA program has helped cattlemen make significant progress in the many “hard” issues that affect carcass quality, Wagner says it’s time to turn attention to some of the “soft” stuff. “Animal handling and welfare is better than it has been, but we can’t stop there. We’ve got to continue to make sure we avoid the bad apples in the group,” he adds.

That’s because everyone has a cell phone now, which means they have a high-resolution still and video camera. “We’ve got to stay vigilant on the animal welfare side, recognizing that our consumers are multi-generations away from what we grew up in. They don’t understand the challenges we face every day in our business.”

Be that as it may, he says the industry must have a zero tolerance policy regarding poor animal handling and welfare. Just because a calf won’t go in the chute, and you’re in a hurry, is no excuse to the consumer, he says.

Next big challenge

The next big challenge for the industry is pre-harvest intervention for E. coli, salmonella and listeria, among others. He says USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is increasing its pressure on processors to reduce the load counts coming into their facilities.

“And we don’t have silver bullets,” he says. “It’s a bit of an elusive target, but they’re looking at the packer today to be the policeman on managing the load counts coming into the plant.”

There are some products and management practices that can help reduce those counts, he says. “It’s going to take a lot of cooperation between all segments to manage that. But it’s something that is continuing to move down the pike.”

Another area where FSIS is turning up the pressure is violative residue testing, he says. More emphasis right now is on cows and veal calves, “but more carcasses are tested on a random basis than ever in our facilities,” he says.

The consumer marketplace is changing, and consumers view food safety as not only one of the beef industry’s biggest advantages, but also one of its biggest challenges. “With food safety, just talking about it doesn’t count,” he says.

Packers are audited frequently by their customers, and some also audit the packers’ suppliers. “So the challenge is that all the things you’re doing on the ranch have to be auditable and verifiable. We can’t just talk about it anymore.”

But cattlemen who are willing to change, adapt and improve will benefit, he says. “Those who are going to continue to move forward, manage their business correctly, keep good records, do what is right, will be rewarded.”