National Beef Quality Audit shows ranchers are doing a good job — but there’s still room for improvement
By Katrina Huffstutler
Every 5 years since 1991, the checkoff-funded National Beef Quality Audit has provided a snapshot of the industry.
The audit shows what cattlemen are doing right, what they’re doing wrong and what they should focus on when it comes to producing a safe, high-quality product in which consumers have confidence.
Last summer, the results of the most recent audit were released. The research concluded that all segments have made great strides, but there’s still room for improvement.
A new audit for a new world
While the 2016 audit marked the 25th anniversary of the project, it wasn’t just the same old, same old. Josh White, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) executive director of producer education, says this report is more thorough and accurate than ever.
“One of the unique things about this audit is that, for the first time, we were able to assess the fed cattle at the same time as the cull cows and bulls, thanks to changes in the packing industry,” White says. “For example, in Texas, we could go to a packer that harvested both fed cattle and cows and bulls and get all of the data for both audits in a 2-day period. We were able to do that at several plants across the country this time, and it really helped us be more efficient and use the checkoff dollars wisely.”
Improved technology also made an impact on the 2016 audit. For example, in 1991, the face-to-face interview portion of the audit was conducted with pen and paper. But now the interviews are done using survey software.
“This program allows us to leave the questions even more wide open and get a more accurate response,” White says. “We can take a lot of the human error and bias out of the equation.”
Top concerns haven’t changed in 5 years
While much changed between 2011 and 2016, what it takes to get beef in someone’s shopping cart or on their plate largely didn’t, White says. Food safety and eating satisfaction kept the No. 1 and No. 2 spots, respectively, while lean, fat and bone; weight and size; how and where the animals were raised; and visual characteristics rounded out the list.
Even though food safety remained the top challenge, White says it is in no way a condemnation of how the industry is doing.
“There’s a lot of confidence in that area, and people recognize that the sophistication of pathogen testing has gotten a lot better,” he says.
“Food safety was even listed as a strength of the industry when we did the strengths and weaknesses discussion. But while beef is safe, stakeholders are saying there’s nothing more important than continuing to make sure it’s safe. Because there’s nothing that hurts the business more than a food safety scare.”
Or, as one packer was quoted in the executive summary as saying, “Food safety is everything. It’s paramount. End of story.”
In the eating satisfaction category, it’s worth noting that, compared to the 2011 audit, a greater percentage of companies were willing to pay a premium for guaranteed quality attributes. However, overall these companies were willing to pay lower average premiums than the companies interviewed in 2011. The research found 55 percent of companies would be willing to pay an average premium of 10 percent if eating satisfaction were guaranteed. As in previous years, tenderness and flavor continue to be the 2 most important quality factors.
The BQA program is doing its job
“Folks are doing things right out in the country, and it’s a big indicator that BQA principles are being followed,” White says.
The proof is in the pudding, with audit findings acknowledging the decrease in cattle with hide brands, the decreased presence of horns and an increase in the frequency of Prime and Choice carcasses. On the cull cow and bull side, there has also been a dramatic improvement in injection site lesions. ➤
In both fed cattle and cull cattle, mobility assessments were good, and the severity of bruising has improved over time — although the latter was tougher to call.
“With bruising, you have to look at the data a little bit to see the positives,” White says.
He says that while on the surface it looks like an increase in bruising, when you study the data more closely, we see the whole story. That’s because if you look back through some of those original audits, they were throwing away whole primals because of severe bruising. But today, while they see a lot of bruising, the vast majority is 1 pound or less of surface trim loss.
“That’s a big difference, and I think cattlemen are to be commended for their work on better stockmanship, low-stress handling and using the BQA principles on animal handling and facility design that help us reduce bruising,” he says.
Unfortunately, the audit did find increases in condemnation of livers due to abscesses, but White says that is due to feeders using fewer antibiotics, thanks to supply chain pressure.
Communication is key
Even though cattle move from segment to segment and owner to owner, today’s technology makes it easy and inexpensive to send information with them as they go, White says.
“I think that as an industry, we could reduce our losses from over-vaccinating cattle that have been vaccinated at every step of the way,” he says. “Just by not sharing that information, we’re probably creating more work and more stress on cattle — not to mention we’re not getting paid as much for them because we’re not sharing as much information.”
In addition, he encourages producers to look at ways they can capture and share information about the genetics and how the cattle were treated, then keep it moving along in the production chain, too.
“Even though the ownership changes, the information doesn’t have to be lost in that process,” White says.
The cattle industry also needs to improve how it tells its story to retailers, restaurateurs and consumers.
“So many of the concerns they have are answered by the Beef Quality Assurance program,” White says. “We just haven’t done a very good job of communicating that to them.”
He says while their focus on getting the information out to producers to help them do a better job was a good thing, now is the time to make sure that story is told beyond our own fences.
“I’m excited about initiatives like the national checkoff re-launch of Beef It’s What’s for Dinner and the Beef Loving Texans campaign, both of which put more focus on how ranchers raise beef,” White says. “BQA is playing a big role in these stories.”
He encourages all cattlemen to go through the Beef Quality Assurance program, not only for their own benefit but because it helps tell a more positive beef industry story — one that includes a large number of producers who care about the product they are trying to market.
“Texas has a great program and you guys also have online opportunities within the state, and of course we have the national online platform,” White says. “So, there is plenty of opportunity to get educated. It never hurts to brush up.”
Want to learn more? Read the entire National Beef Quality Audit report at bqa.org or learn about the Texas Beef Quality Assurance program at bqa.org or texasbeefquality.com.
Quality Quantified is excerpted from the March 2018 edition of The Cattleman magazine.