Depending on your point of view, quality system assessment (QSA) programs can be simple, complex, common sense, or a lot of work. But no matter your opinion, government rules controlling beef exports will affect the industry's ability to meet beef sales potential to the newly opened Japanese market.

Japan officially opened its doors Dec. 12 to U.S. beef from animals 20 months of age or younger. And the rules for verifying that meat qualifies for export to Japan can be found in detailed QSA plans that fit the Beef Export Verification (BEV) program.

QSAs are created by packers, feeders, stockyards, producers and suppliers under strict USDA oversight. The evaluation of their compliance to BEV is conducted by USDA's Livestock and Seed Program, Audit, Review and Compliance (ARC) Branch. All QSA programs are audited by ARC at least twice a year.

In terms of the Japanese export market for beef, a QSA provides assurance that animals bred, raised and harvested are 20 months of age or younger.

Qualifying cattle

Information on QSAs has been making its way across the U.S. for more than a year (see “Prove It!” November 2005 BEEF), but confusion still exists. For example, just having “age- and source-verified” cattle isn't enough to qualify for the beef export program, says John Lawrence, Iowa State University (ISU) livestock economist and Iowa Beef Center director. The animals must be part of a USDA-approved QSA program (find a listing of such programs at www.ams.usda.gov/lsg/arc/qsap.htm).

Properly documented calves should be accepted into most existing QSA programs. Stockers and feedlots wishing to participate, however, have additional hoops to assure animals through their operations can be effectively traced and are from QSA-certified operations.

A whole new world

According to Paul Clayton, U.S. Meat Export Federation (USMEF) senior vice president of export services, it's now a whole new industry ballgame when it comes to exporting beef products.

“The page has turned,” Clayton says. “We have a new set of rules.”

QSA participation is voluntary for cattle selling domestically, but mandatory for sellers wishing to potentially test the lucrative Japan export market. That applies to every sector from cow-calf to packer — no exceptions.

Cow-calf producers, stockers and feeders aren't required to have their own QSAs, however. They can participate as a supplier to a customer's QSA program, for instance, or join an umbrella QSA program set up by an organization or stockyard.

And it doesn't mean a producer wanting to determine the value potential of QSA participation will find it difficult, says Ben Weinheimer, Texas Cattle Feeders Association (TCFA) regulatory manager.

“QSA isn't a program requiring drastic change,” he says. “If producers are smart enough to stay in the business and remain profitable, it will be straightforward for them.”

For cow-calf producers, Weinheimer says it's a process of documenting the date the first animal in a group was born. That documentation can be on pocket calendars, wall calendars or other verifiable, visible records.

“Bull dates alone aren't sufficient, although bull dates can provide good supporting documentation,” he says.

Lawrence agrees cow-calf producers should find the process straightforward.

“For producers with recorded birth dates, and who know the age of the oldest cattle (in the group), it's pretty simple,” he says.

Steve Owens is co-owner of Joplin Regional Stockyards (JRS), Carthage, MO. Owens says JRS, which established its own QSA program under the Missouri Department of Agriculture umbrella and is the first U.S. auction market to be QSA qualified, picks up most of the burden for its customers.

“We're the ones doing the work. The work is at the stockyard, feeder and packer level,” Owens says. “It doesn't have to be difficult for the normal producer.”

Auditing is a key

Clayton says QSA involvement requires a “realistic record” of the animals. The records must make sense to an auditor, he says.

While QSA-approved sites will be USDA audited twice/year, those requesting QSA certification also will be subject to auditing by USDA or a QSA-approved site. Audits by the latter, which would be similar to those by USDA, will take place at least once each year.

“There needs to be a real comfort level with the records,” Clayton says. “Everything must add up.”

An audit “comes down to being a few pieces of documentation, and the involvement doesn't always need to be face-to-face,” says Weinheimer of TCFA, which has instituted its own umbrella QSA. What is verified is the training process, age records and detailed information on commingled cattle, with more detailed procedures on how the cattle were kept separated.

Weinheimer says feeders and producers who establish their own QSAs will spend more, not just because of the initial development costs but because they must pay for USDA's fee-based auditing. Meanwhile, an umbrella program will be audited regularly by USDA, with only a percentage of its participants audited every six months.

Getting past the confusion

Weinheimer admits there's been much confusion with the export-verification process. Lawrence attributes it to the fact each QSA program is developed by the qualifying location, which creates some differences.

“This is one of those cases where producers could sit down in the coffee shop and tell different stories about what's required — and they all could be true,” he says.

Still, the differences should be minor in most QSA-approved locations, as bottom-line requirements to meet export qualification to Japan are the same. Producers may have to keep slightly different sets of documentation for different QSA-approved locations, Lawrence says, but cattle approved for an independent QSA plan should be portable to any QSA-approved system.

Clayton adds, “Producers shouldn't make this more complicated than it is. These things can be simple.”

Will it pay?

Of course, the big question for all industry segments is whether the extra effort is worth it pocketbook-wise? Lawrence says a lot of that depends on cattle availability.

“We don't know if packers will pay for animals that qualify,” he says. “Will they pay a premium, or will they be able to find enough eligible cattle in the cooler?”

While it may be a slow process, Clayton says, as time goes on, there will be value incentives for providing this information, which is a “value attribute” of the cattle being sold.

“The producer should get paid for those things,” he says, adding that “the industry gets the value” for this extra market for its animals.

Joplin's Owens believes QSA participation will pay off in the long run.

“Recording this information is probably something producers are already doing,” Owens says. “You might as well go ahead and get approved as a QSA producer if you have the opportunity.”

After all, he adds, it represents another market for your cattle.

Walt Barnhart is president of Carnivore Communications LLC, Denver, CO, and a former National Cattlemen's Beef Association communications director.

Age options

Documented birth dates aren't the only approved method of verifying age of cattle for export of their beef to Japan. Beef from carcasses with A40 maturity also qualify.

Most carcasses in the A40 classification, which is certified by USDA graders who grade the ossification of the chine bone and other factors, will be those of cattle less than 15 months of age.

The drawback of using the A40 method to separate export items is that important variety meats, such as tongue, can't be tied to the carcass, and thus aren't eligible for export to Japan. Such products have much more value in foreign markets than domestically.

Packers would prefer to stage their cattle by documented age, which a QSA makes possible, so all beef and offal in a harvest and fabrication session would qualify for export.