All too often, the term “quality beef” is used within the industry very loosely and rhetorically. It makes us feel good to proclaim U.S. beef is the world's best, but, to be fair to everyone, we need to put the term quality beef into perspective.

I once asked a college class to define quality beef. A sleepy male voice in the back row answered, “It depends on the cook.” What a great definition!

Quality beef consistently satisfies consumer expectations for eating and preparation. These expectations may include tenderness, flavor, juiciness, color and leanness. The definition also can include type of packaging, ease of preparation and, of course, price.

This definition though, is very subjective and can be fluid. Different consumers have different preferences. Brazilian beefeaters generally prefer beef that's ultra low-fat and grass fed, over U.S. corn-fed beef.

On the other hand, U.S. beefeaters often claim Brazilian beef is tough, with a strong beef flavor. Most Brazilian beef must be slow-roasted, sliced and served very thin. A 1-in. steak from a typical Brazilian steer would require far more jaw-force than most of us possess.

Domestic consumer expectations also vary as prices vary for cuts, grades and styles of beef. A tour of any supermarket meat case drives this point home.

Nuts and bolts

Flavor is provided by compounds in intramuscular (IM) fat (or marbling) of beef muscle tissue, and varies with genetics, nutrition, health and other factors. Juiciness is determined by the amounts of moisture and marbling in the muscle after cooking.

Tenderness is determined by the amounts of connective tissue and marbling, and the activity of enzymes that break down muscle proteins after slaughter. Temperament, handling, castration, growth implants and IM injections all play a role in palatability.

Quality-beef products are harvested and processed under strict government inspection systems that ensure it's safe, wholesome, and correctly labeled and packaged. The USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is charged with the ultimate responsibility of protecting the U.S. meat supply, and is responsible for imported beef.

While we're all aware breaches in beef safety do occur, by law there's no tolerance with regard to the production of unsafe or unwholesome beef. It's why we see recalls. Every meat-processing facility — domestic and foreign — supplying beef to American consumers must follow and document an approved beef safety plan.

Often overlooked is the demand by regulators for proper labeling and documentation of beef products as they enter commerce. Meat inspectors are bound by law to get just as cranky when they see labeling errors as when they see obvious safety violations.

Quality beef can be identified through USDA's official beef quality grading system. A Quality Grade (Prime, Choice, Select, etc.) is a composite evaluation of factors that affect palatability of meat (tenderness, juiciness and flavor). These factors include carcass maturity, firmness, texture, color of lean, and the amount and distribution of marbling within the lean.

USDA Quality Grades are one of the main determinants of beef-carcass value. Two factors — marbling and maturity (or age of the carcass) — determine beef quality grades.

Marbling is the IM flecks of fat dispersed in the lean tissue. The degree of marbling is measured when a carcass is ribbed (split) between the 12th and 13th ribs.

Improving beef quality and consistency begins with understanding the industry targets. These targets include the elimination of injection-site blemishes and lesions, bruises, dark cutters and liver condemnation, to name a few.

Beef quality audits

A series of landmark studies called the National Beef Quality Audit (NBQA) has taken a closer look at the quality and consistency of production practices.

The 1991 NBQA demonstrated U.S. beef was too fat, tough and inconsistent to be competitive with pork and poultry in the marketplace. Significant progress has been made by all beef segments since then to improve the overall acceptance of beef carcasses that enter the fabrication sections of our processing facilities. But the 2005 NBQA suggests there's still work to do.

To improve quality and consistency, it's necessary for ranchers to receive feedback on the performance of cattle that leave the ranch. Getting and using this information as a basis for setting goals to increase performance is often difficult, but certainly not impossible in today's production world.

The 2005 NBQA concluded a 19.2% occurrence of average and high Choice, and only 2.9% Prime beef. The majority of carcasses range between Select (36.7%) and low Choice (35%), with only slight or small amounts of marbling.

The true challenge for the U.S. beef industry in producing quality beef lies in eliminating the 6.2% of Standard carcasses that more often lead to an unsatisfactory eating experience.

Clint Peck is director, Beef Quality Assurance, Montana State University.