The 2011 National Beef Quality Audit (NBQA) provides insights on quality attributes that could help ranchers fine-tune their genetic selection. Colorado State University animal scientist Jason Ahola, PhD, outlined some of the key NBQA take-home messages for ranchers during a seminar preceding CSU’s bull sale, held last week in conjunction with Leachman Cattle of Colorado.

The NBQA has been conducted every five years since 2001, and over time, the challenges or concerns the study uncovers have changed considerably. The 2011 audit included surveys of several industry sectors including cattle feeders, packers, foodservice, distributors, further processors, retailers, government and allied industry. Researchers also conducted in-plant audits to document quality attributes on about 18,000 beef carcasses.

Ahola lists these key messages from the 2011 NBQA:

  1. Since the first audit in 2001, the “low-hanging-fruit” in terms of beef quality has been picked. That audit revealed problems such as excess outside fat, injection-site lesions and other defects. The industry responded and did a good job of reducing the incidence of those defects in the ensuing years. Some of the challenges identified in more recent audits require more complicated solutions.
  2. Food safety and eating satisfaction have become the primary concerns. Among stakeholder groups surveyed, 28 percent overall listed food safety as the most important quality category and 20 percent listed eating satisfaction. Forty-two percent of foodservice, distributors and further processors listed food safety as their top priority, as did 39 percent of retailers.
  3. Marbling is the main trait ranchers can select for that affects eating satisfaction.
  4. The audit found 61 percent of carcasses qualified for USDA Choice quality grade or better, up from 55 percent in 2001 and 49 percent in 2005. However, the supply of well-marbled beef remains inadequate to meet consumer demand. The audit identified lost opportunities due to nonconformance with ideal targets adding up to $43.66 per head. Quality grade was by far the largest factor, accounting for $25.25 of the total. Ranchers can help address demand for marbled beef through genetic selection, but unless they retain ownership through finishing, might have insufficient economic incentive to do so. For information on a program that could help ranchers capture more of that value, read “The next step in value-based marketing?
  5. Buyers want more information about the source of cattle and management practices. Among cattle feeders, 22 percent listed “how and where cattle were raised” as their most important quality attribute. Significant numbers of packers, distributors and retailers also prioritized that category, and it ranked third overall across industry sectors. The type of desired information varies between these groups, with cattle feeders most interested in the health and genetic backgrounds of cattle and retailers interested in the origin of cattle and in how animals were treated through the production chain.
  6. Inadequate transparency in beef production could erode beef demand. Consumers increasingly want to know more about their food, and the beef industry has not always succeeded in telling consumers what it does and why it does it.