The U.S. beef industry has changed a great deal since the forerunners of today's Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) programs were initiated nearly two decades ago. And, there's a movement afoot to ensure national and state BQA programs stay on the same track with changes in the industry.

Gary Smith, Colorado State University Monfort Chair and professor of meat sciences, says BQA programming has been instrumental in building beef demand in the U.S. and elsewhere. He says it's important at this juncture to look back at BQA's history and remember that early beef-safety-assurance programs were aimed at assuring freedom from violative chemical residues in beef. Originally called “Beef Safety Assurance,” the program's early emphasis was on assuring the real and perceived safety of beef.

“Measures were successfully designed to discourage inappropriate use of blended concoctions of antibiotics then being used at some feedyards,” he explains. “This included educating stakeholders about proper use of pharmaceutical products and the honoring of withdrawal times.”

In wrestling with the residues issue, safety-assurance program architects adopted principles developed by food giant Pillsbury for its quality control in supplying food to the NASA space program. By 1985, a cadre of feedlots had been certified by USDA as Verified Production Control feedlots using Pillsbury's novel Hazard Analysis, Critical Control Point (HACCP) program as their template.

BQA evolved into a pre-harvest concept designed to get the “lemons” out of the beef-supply chain. Led by the then-National Cattlemen's Association's Darrell Wilkes, Chuck Lambert and Gary Cowman, BQA programs, funded by checkoff money through the Cattlemen's Beef Board (CBB), fired up in nearly every state.

The concept matured in the early 1990s as the industry's Beef Quality Task Force began to look into why and where beef was falling short of consumer expectations.

The 1991 National Beef Quality Audit, the first comprehensive audit of beef carcasses, concluded the industry lost an average of nearly $280 in quality defects on every fed animal marketed — the majority due to excess fat, lack of marbling, and other carcass defects, including injection-site blemishes.

Since then, the reduction of injection-site lesions has been among BQA's major success stories.

“Injection-site lesion audits and educational programs were initially thought by some in the packing, processing and retailing sectors to be a food-safety issue,” Smith explains. “Demonstrating it was an issue of loss of saleable product, creating problems with tenderness/toughness, allowed it to be transformed to a ‘quality’ issue.”

While BQA's signature has been in improving the quality and consumer confidence in fed beef, attention focused also on non-fed cattle — cull bulls and cows — and the beef they produce.

The 1994 Non-Fed Beef Quality Audit indicated the top 10 defects found in non-fed animals were due mainly to pre-harvest management practices. By managing and monitoring cull animals properly, and marketing non-fed animals appropriately, the audit said the industry could recoup about $70/head marketed.

Dee Griffin, DVM and associate professor, Great Plains Veterinary Education Center, University of Nebraska, was among the BQA pioneers.

“It's a process of figuring out what could go wrong, plan to avoid it, and document what you've done,” Griffin says “BQA is just part of good business.”

Griffin adds beef quality audits for fed beef in 2000 and 2005, along with the International Beef Quality Audit (co-sponsored by USDA and U.S. Meat Export Federation) in 1994, were critical to improving beef quality and providing direction to local, state and national BQA educational programs.

BQA under scrutiny

Of late though, BQA programming has been under scrutiny if not outright criticism from within the industry.

“There's concern the BQA program has lost energy and focus — and there's considerable variation in state programs,” says Ken Odde, DVM and chair of the North Dakota State University (NDSU) Animal and Range Sciences Department. “This variation is explained by different views of needs in different states — and variation in sources of money that are funding the state programs.”

Odde, along with Barry Dunn, Kingsville, TX, King Ranch Institute for Ranch Management executive director, was commissioned by the CBB to review and report on the current status of the BQA programming. In doing so, they were charged with evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of national and state BQA programs and suggesting future direction for BQA.

“I think BQA is very vulnerable, unless it's improved,” Dunn says. “The question becomes how do you ‘standardize’ BQA programming while keeping it adaptive to regional and local needs and resources.”

Dunn believes BQA programs need to be more accountable, and the industry should adopt rigid standardized terms, definitions, processes and reporting techniques relating to BQA.

“Those deeply involved in BQA programming activities perceive that their mission, organizational structure and activities are transparent, easily accessed and well understood by anyone interested in the program. But, the program has no official recordkeeping system to track its impacts so it's impossible to communicate how much work has been done,” he adds.

“Another confusion stems from BQA training protocols, which are different from one state to another,” Dunn continues. “There are some structural similarities, but also quite a few differences. This leads to confusion of what BQA really is, and a reluctance of meat industry companies to adopt BQA certification standards because of the state-to-state variations.”

Dunn says a set of standards should more reflect what BQA “is” and what it “isn't” — and that state beef councils get clear-cut guidelines from CBB on what can be funded and what can't be funded with checkoff funds.

“Future BQA efforts should become integral to the successful completion of the beef industry's long-range plan,” he adds.

The future of BQA

In addition to recommending BQA programs be maintained, Odde offers the following suggestions for rejuvenating BQA:

  • Develop a strategic plan for BQA programming.
  • Ensure BQA has strong leadership at the national level.
  • Continue the beef-quality audits.
  • Make BQA market driven.
  • Continue to invest in dairy-beef quality assurance.

Smith believes, all the scrutiny and criticism of BQA notwithstanding, the industry has been doing enough things right over the past two decades — reflected in the results of the latest national beef-quality audit.

“BQA participants, its advisory board and the NCBA can take great pride in its progress,” Smith says. “Future BQA programming will most certainly continue emphasizing the essential elements of what it's done so successfully.”

He's confident the BQA advisory board will continue to stand ready as the “rapid response team” to address all new concerns about the quality and safety of the U.S. beef supply.

NDSU BQA specialist Lisa Pederson sees the current scrutiny of BQA as a time to regroup and reenergize state programs under a common focus. She says the local direction to BQA programming has been a key to its success — and BQA needs to evolve with the industry.

“As we move down the road with new ideas and initiatives, we shouldn't lose sight of where we've been and how we got here,” she says. “A strategic plan will be a good thing — as long as we have the freedom to develop BQA programs for our individual states and the unique needs of our beef producers.”