In terms of the sheer number of data points and volume of information, the National Beef Quality Audit (NBQA) has been perhaps one of the beef industry’s most ambitious efforts. In terms of taking a long and hard look at how well the beef industry is satisfying its customers, and then identifying paths to improvement, the effort has been nothing short of wildly successful.

But the 2011 NBQA revealed a change in direction for consumers and what they expect and demand from cattlemen, says Jason Ahola, director of the Beef Seedstock Team at Colorado State University (CSU) and an associate professor in beef management systems. And that has implications for how you buy bulls and market your calves. Speaking prior to the CSU-Leachman Cattle Co. bull sale last weekend, Ahola offered his top six takeaways from the 2011 NBQA:

  1. The low-hanging fruit has already been picked n terms of easy and immediate changes to beef quality. “Excess fat and injection-site lesions have been drastically reduced, and a reduction in other defects has been achieved,” he says. “Up to 2005, the incidence of side brands, horns and bruises was the lowest we had seen to that point. In 2011, those numbers improved even further. So, in reality, we’re not going to make tremendous additional improvement in some of those areas.”
  2. Food safety and eating satisfaction have become the primary consumer concerns. “Twenty years ago, the six things that came out of the audit were external fat, seam fat, palatability, tenderness, overall cutability and marbling. Then in 2005, we started to see traceability, something we couldn’t measure,” Ahola says. “In the 2011 audit, the biggest concern was food safety and how and where the cattle were raised. We really have come into a new era where consumers want to know what we have done with this before it got to them.”
  3. Marbling is the only trait we can widely select for to alter palatability. “Over 40% of the variation in juiciness, tenderness and sensory experience can be explained by marbling,” Ahola says. “As you move up in marbling, you have a higher probability of a good sensory experience. Slightly abundant, which is Prime, has a 99% chance for a positive experience. Upper two-thirds Choice, an 88% chance; and low Choice, 62% chance of a positive eating experience. The average Select piece of beef has a 29% chance of a positive eating experience. If beef is to continue to be at the top of the protein ladder, marbling is going to drive what consumers want.”
  4. The supply of marbled beef is inadequate to meet consumer demand. While the 2011 audit didn’t address this concern, the 2005 audit revealed the industry was producing half as much Prime as the market wanted, two-thirds of the top Choice, about enough low Choice, and too much Select. “I would argue that today, we’re in the same scenario,” Ahola says. “There is still a shortage of highly marbled cattle. The opportunity we have now is to affect marbling and quality grade.”
  5. Purchasers of both cattle and beef want cattle management practices to be documented. And there may be premiums for that. “About 50% of retailers said they would pay a premium if the cattle industry could verify food safety,” Ahola says. “Likewise, 33% of retailers would pay a premium if you could verify how and where the cattle were raised.”
  6. Inadequate transparency in cattle production practices will erode consumer confidence. One of the major take-homes from the 2011 NBQA is telling the beef story, Ahola says. “Retailers, packers and feeders say not telling our story, or not being transparent, is one of our greatest weaknesses. It comes across as we’re trying to hide something.”

In Ahola’s mind, beef is moving toward luxury status as cattle numbers continue to decline and retail prices continue to creep up. “So greater-than or equal-to Choice marbling will be required,” he says. “Feedyards will increasingly seek history and health status, and retailers will seek well-being and origin information. Ultimately, palatability and safety will continue to be number one with consumers.”

 

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