The U.S. beef industry broke into a cold sweat one day back in the late 1980s. It looked around and realized beef was no longer king of the dinner table. The conclusion was consumers were paying too much for beef products that didn't meet their standards.

Today, all indications are that — from embryo to dinner table — significant improvements have been made in meeting consumer expectations. And while some people are critical of progress (or lack thereof) in some areas, many feel work over the past five years has kept pace with efforts initiated nearly 15 years ago.

In 1991, led by the then-National Cattle-men's Association and a group of meat scientists, the industry began studying beef's fall from grace. Checkoff-financed, the first National Beef Quality Audit (NBQA) dissected the predicament of end-product quality and put a value on “non-conformance.”

No segment escaped scrutiny. The benchmark study pegged industry-wide losses due to quality defects at $279.82/fed animal harvested. It then became a blueprint for improvement of such deficiencies that include:

  • Injection-site blemishes.

  • Hide damage from brands.

  • Excessive external fat.

  • Dark cutters and bruising.

  • Inconsistent size and weight of cattle, carcasses and cuts.

  • Liver condemnations.

  • Inadequate tenderness and insufficient marbling.

The beef industry went to work. By 1998, beef demand rose 3.32%. Subsequent audits charted the industry's progress. The 1995 NBQA pinpointed per-head loss at $137.50; in 2000 it was $114.92. Most of the reductions were due to fewer injection-site lesions, bruises and dark cutters.

The 2000 NBQA list of successes in improving the value of fed steers and heifers included:

  • 86.3% were appropriately branded or not hot-iron branded.

  • 96.2% were free of excess mud.

  • 77.3% were polled or dehorned.

  • 88.4% of carcasses were free of major and critical bruises.

  • 93.5% graded Select or better.

  • 88.3% had Yield Grades (YG) of 3 or lower.

  • 97.5% of top sirloin butts were free of injection-site lesions.

  • 85% of fed cattle were harvested in plants that are using multiple-hurdle decontamination systems.

  • 47 states had Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) programs.

  • 52 USDA certified/process-verified beef programs had been developed.

  • Quarter-inch trim beef was the industry standard.

By the end of 2004, the Beef Demand Index, which measures several specific factors including per-capita consumption and consumer spending for beef, had risen 25% since 1998. Cattle-Fax estimates the overall increase in beef demand since 1998 has added $22/cwt. to the price of fed cattle.

Making the grade

Recognizing the improvements in fed beef quality, the 2000 NBQA project leaders knew there was still room for improvement. Therefore, they drafted 12 goals the beef industry should try to achieve by 2005. Following are the grades for each goal as averaged from the individual panelists, listed on page 32, along with their comments:

  1. Eliminate USDA Standards: C+
    • Not a realistic goal. Of much greater economic significance is the gradual erosion since 1990 of cattle qualifying for Choice.

    • Most carcasses qualifying as Standard grade are never assigned a quality grade.

    • There are still too many low-quality, non-conforming carcasses that don't fit any meaningful branded-beef program.

    • Increased grid marketing has placed pressure on eliminating Standards. Continued emphasis on marbling in breeding programs and a tendency to move away from breeding cattle for extreme growth as a single trait have all helped.

  2. Eliminate YG 4 & 5 carcasses: C-
    • Has the gradual erosion in percent Choice, coupled with market signals that reward heavier carcasses, encouraged feeders to feed quality grade performance into cattle, unintentionally resulting in more YG 4s?

    • Increased hot-carcass weights and a substantial Choice-Select spread will continue to be an industry problem.

    • YG 4s and 5s have increased by more than fourfold since 2000.

    • Many argue ribeye size hasn't kept pace with increased carcass weights, resulting in higher percentages of YG-4 carcasses.

    • Packers have been desperate for volume and haven't sufficiently discounted these cattle to stop their production.

  3. Eliminate injection-site lesions from whole-muscle cuts, including the chuck: B+
    • Work remains on eliminating chuck lesions in fed cattle and round lesions in market cows.

    • With more value cuts coming from the chuck, this may become a concern.

    • The industry continues to make good progress in this area.

    • Work at USDA's Meat Animal Research Center, and continued training via state Beef Quality Assurance programs on alternative injection sites, has helped alleviate many problems seen in the chuck.

  4. Eliminate side-branded hides: C+
    • Not much progress in reducing hide defects due to brands. Have any states changed their laws?

    • In brand states, historical and emotional issues of brands outweigh most incentives.

    • Elimination will be an uphill battle.

    • Relocation of brands is unlikely in most instances without a greater incentive.

  5. Reduce horns to less than 5% of the fed-cattle supply: B
    • The industry has responded positively to reduce prevalence and length of horns.

    • The willingness of the commercial cattleman to pay more for “homozygous polled” bulls has influenced the seedstock producer to concentrate on this trait.

    • Polled feeder cattle tend to sell for a few dollars/cwt. more than horned feeders.

  6. Develop and implement a standardized electronic individual animal ID system: D+
    • The retail and foodservice sectors are already sending signals to the industry. It's time to get our oars in the water.

    • A few alliances are progressive in individual ID, but the U.S. beef industry has a long way to go in ID and traceability.

    • The cattle industry must work toward compliance and adhere to standards regarding animal ID.

    • The U.S. critically needs an animal tracking and disease surveillance system to be globally competitive. It will take us years to develop an effective system.

    • The industry understands the value of animal ID and is moving forward to a national program. NCBA is playing a lead role in this effort.

  7. Develop an information system to allow each producer to conduct a quality audit for his/her own herd: C
    • More producers are documenting production practices, especially those participating in a coordinated system or certified/verified program.

    • I would like to see every producer take an animal through a “Gate-to-Plate” session.

    • More data must be shared throughout the production and processing chain.

    • The emphasis has been on animal disease and confidentiality issues. Animal ID will help.

  8. Assure 100% of seedstock animals are accompanied by meaningful genetic data for production and end-product traits: B+
    • Look at sale catalogs.

    • Breed associations are doing their part, but too many commodity producers' goal is still simply a live calf from every dam.

    • Increased use of EPDs focusing on specific factors is extremely beneficial.

    • Some breeds are developing tenderness EPDs and several are reporting indexes related to profitability.

    • Selling bulls without data isn't a profitable enterprise today.

  9. Assure that 100% of cattlemen complete BQA training: B
    • Many states have embraced BQA training and continue to reach producers with best practices.

    • BQA training has dramatically improved U.S. beef's safety and quality.

    • Significant progress but more to do.

    • Voluntary training offered by states is simplified through use of on-line systems.

  10. Eliminate bruises that result in a devaluation of subprimals: B-
    • The proactive approach the industry is taking to improve handling and transportation will have a significant positive impact on reducing bruising.

    • The goal is a challenge to quantify, and even harder to eliminate.

    • Awareness of proper animal handling techniques and facilities is significantly higher than in 2000.

    • Grid selling and BQA both contribute to this as bruises are trimmed before carcasses are weighed for sale.

  11. Improve transportation and handling equipment of cattle. B
    • All industry sectors have been proactive in their efforts to improve animal handling and transportation. Several large foodservice chains routinely audit animal handling practices of suppliers.

    • Most associations are conducting cattle care and handling workshops for members.

    • Capital investment has been the biggest hindrance in reaching this goal.

    • Manufacturers have made a sincere effort to change equipment to facilitate NBQA guidelines.

  12. Continually improve the eating quality of beef: B
    • The industry has developed relatively high quality heat-and-serve products.

    • Improved product quality includes the emergence of several branded beef programs that focus on application of technologies and/or control of processes to improve eating quality.

    • New value-cuts from the chuck get high marks from consumers for flavor, juiciness and tenderness.

    • Some packers and processors have implemented postmortem technology to further ensure the quality of beef for customers and their consumers.

    • The product is getting better and the emphasis on tenderness by many branded programs is helping get the message out.

When all the judges' grades for the 12 goals were averaged into an overall grade, the industry averaged a B-minus for its progress over the past five years. Not bad for an industry that's still as segmented as it was in 1991. Where would you grade the industry on its progress over the past 15-20 years?

The BEEF magazine panel

BEEF recently solicited help from a cross-section of specialists to “grade” the industry's progress toward the 12 “goals by 2005” outlined in the 2000 National Beef Quality Audit. The panelists included:

Glen Dolezal, Excel Corp., director of new technology applications.

Bob Rolston, Maverick Ranch Natural Meats director of live cattle procurement; and Travis Hoffman, Colorado State University (CSU) BQA coordinator.

Bill Mies, eMerge Interactive, Inc., vice president.

Charlene Schuster, Montana Beef Council executive director.

Daryl Tatum, CSU animal science professor.