Dr. Griffin remembers when and where the fuse was lit on injection site blemishes. He and some others were at a meeting of the Florida Cattlemen’s Association to talk about the BQA program.

“A guy stands up in the back of the room,” Dr. Griffin recalls. “He says in a very nice way, ‘You folks have a problem with beef. Probably 20-25% of the top butts we get have big ol’ knots in them.’”

That guy happened to be the CEO of Publix grocery stores. He explained to the crowd that his chain had 4,000 stores. Beef flowed through the company’s central beef cutting facility. Meat cutters were paid $27 per hour. Every time they were cutting top butts and hit one of those abscesses filled with fluid, they had to shut down their saw and clean up the mess … at $27 per hour. Because so many top butts had these abscesses, filled with fluid or not, he had to buy more saws and hire more help to keep production flowing.

That revelation was one of the driving forces behind the industry conducting the nation’s first NBQA in 1991. Sure enough, that audit found that 21% of all top butts had those big ol’ knots—injection site lesions—in them.

Another impetus behind the first audit was the industry’s growing mountain of excess fat. A 1990 report from NCA’s Value Based Marketing Task Force estimated excess fat from fed cattle totaled around 2.08 billion pounds and cost the industry $1.99 billion.

Between known carcass defects and the fact consumer beef demand continued to decline about 1% every year, the industry knew there was urgent need to benchmark carcass quality defects and their degree. Subsequent audits conducted every five years enabled the industry to gauge progress relative to those benchmarks, uncover new defects and chart a course for continual quality progress.

The results are stunning

Those previously mentioned injection site blemishes ranked second on the list of industry priorities in the 1991 audit with an incidence rate of 21.3%. When the 2000 NBQA rolled around, 2.5% of top butts were found to have injection site lesions. The secret was switching what had been intramuscular injections administered in the area of the top butt to subcutaneous injections in the neck.

As for those illegal residue levels that USDA began hunting in 1980, they’re virtually non-existent today and have been for more than two decades.

Though the battle against fat continues, closely trimmed fat became industry standard by 2000. According to the latest NBQA, 9.4% of fed cattle were Yield Grade 4 or fatter in 2011; 11.7% in 2000; and 17% in 1991.

Not coincidentally, this progress coincides with the evolution of value based marketing. Back when BQA began, basically every head standing in any fed cattle pen was worth within about 50¢ of one another from week to week.

One of the recommendations in the 1990 report from the industry’s Value Based Marketing Task Force was that cattle should be valued on an individual carcass basis rather than paid for on an average live basis. Though the evolution seems slower than a snail in the Antarctic, the concern most often cited these days is that so few fed cattle are marketed in the spot cash market on a live basis.

So, from about 1980 to 1990 a confluence of disparate motivations pushed the industry in similar directions: abide by pharmaceutical labels and record their use to maintain the industry’s arsenal of animal health products; eliminate injection site lesions and excess fat to maintain consumer demand and get paid according to compliance with these objectives and other consumer needs.

Unfortunately, focus on the end product in those early years came at the expense of prioritizing calves entering the market channel as the means to achieve the outcome.