“For beef, the number-one driver is still product quality. When everybody asks consumers what drives purchases, it’s the one that comes out on top.”

And, for most consumers, taste is what drives the determination of a quality product, says Daryl Tatum, Colorado State University meats scientist. So how are we doing? Is the beef industry delivering the product that consumers expect?

For the most part, cattlemen have improved beef quality from the baseline established in 1981 when the first Beef Quality Audit was conducted. Back then, the research showed that beef was too fat, too tough and too inconsistent to compete well with pork and poultry.

“There are still some toughness problems, there are still some fat problems, there are still some problems with tenderness and quality,” Tatum says. But the industry is making progress.

A significant step forward happened in 2009 when camera-assisted grading became routine. Not only did the technology do a better job of identifying and placing carcasses in their correct quality grade, but it’s a very effective tool in consistently identifying eating quality, Tatum says.

And that has helped packers do a better job of segmenting product lines and providing consumers with a product that more consistently meets their needs, says Derek Vote, a meats scientist with JBS.

According to Vote, there has been a shift over the past several years in the price-quality relationship with beef. “I think we’ve gotten to the point where we’re more segmented across our customers. I think the price-quality relationship has become steeper.”

That’s because, with the new camera technology now available, packers are better able to sort carcasses in the cooler and slot the beef products those carcasses produce into more clearly segmented product lines. In fact, JBS has branded-beef product lines ranging from cuts of higher-quality cow carcasses to Holstein steers and all the way to Prime.

What it boils down to, he says, is this: Consumers generally prefer the taste of beef to other proteins, but customers have different price points. “So, for us, the strategy is to have something along that whole continuous line, where we’ve got something that meets everybody’s needs.”

But there’s still room for improvement, Tatum says. “I think where we need to focus is not on Prime or the upper two-thirds of Choice. They’re delivering pretty well. That lower end of Choice and Select are still problems we can solve.”