Buyers for retailers and restaurants demand beef that is safe and delicious, but their perception of beef quality has evolved further, to include transparency in production processes. They want to know where the cattle were raised, how they were managed and why. Those messages stood out as researchers presented results of the 2011 National Beef Quality Audit (NBQA) during the Cattle Industry Summer Conference in Denver Thursday.

Since the first NBQA in 1991, the beef industry has made tremendous progress in correcting many of the physical deficiencies the audit revealed, such as bruises, injection-site lesions and excess outside fat. The new audit also documents producer commitment to animal husbandry and quality assurance. However, expectations across the food system continue to grow higher and broader.

The 2011 NBQA included three phases, each focused on different groups of stakeholders. Phase 1 of the study involved a detailed survey of decision makers from five beef-industry sectors: feeders, packers, foodservice/distributors/further processors, retailers and government/allied industries.

Colorado State University animal scientist Keith Belk, PhD., led this portion of the audit and presented the results Thursday.

Belk says the survey results show that representatives of each sector perceive beef quality differently, due to different market signals or motivations at each stage in the beef food system. Food safety though, rises to the top. Each of the industry segments except feeders ranked food safety as their top beef quality priority. Those same four sectors ranked eating satisfaction second. Feeders, whose profits depend on cattle performance, ranked “how and where cattle were raised” as their top measure of quality, followed by weight and size and genetics.

The closer a segment is to consumers, the higher it prioritizes food safety and eating satisfaction. For example, 68 percent of retailers and 66 percent of foodservice respondents ranked those as their top-two quality attributes, while 55 percent of packers and 20 percent of feeders gave those categories their top rankings.

Interestingly, when asked about the industry’s strengths, weaknesses and threats, most segments listed food safety in each category, suggesting they recognize the industry’s success in protecting food safety, but also realize safety incidents can quickly erode consumer trust. A key weakness, according to the audit, is a lack of transparency and ability to tell the beef story.

Texas A&M University animal scientist Jeff Savell, PhD., led the second phase of the audit, which focused on visits to packing plants to document carcass traits for large numbers of cattle. Savell notes that scheduling plant visits has become more complicated than in the past, as packers now designate days of the week for specifically processing classes of cattle, such as those qualifying for age and source verification, non hormone-treated cattle programs, Mexican cattle, Canadian cattle or cattle destined for branded programs.

Researchers found that overall, a higher percentage of cattle carry some type of individual ID tag upon arrival at the plants. During 2011, 50.6 percent of the cattle audited had individual ID visual tags, compared with 38.7 percent in the 2005 audit. Use of electronic ID tags increased even more, turning up on 20.1 percent of cattle in 2011 compared with 3.5 percent in 2005. The increased use of individual ID tags suggests growing numbers of producers are maintaining records for management or marketing purposes.

Angus influence on cattle types continues to increase, as 61.1 percent of cattle audited in 2011 had black hides, compared with 56.3 percent in 2005 and 45.1 percent in 2000.

The percentage of cattle grading USDA Choice or Prime has trended upwards with each audit. In 1995, 49 percent of cattle audited graded Choice or Prime. The number rose to 51 percent in 2000, 55 percent in 2005 and 61 percent in 2011.

The 2011 NBQA for the first time included a third phase, which explored quality enhancement practices in the seedstock, cow-calf and stocker segments. Colorado State University animal scientist Jason Ahola, PhD., directed this portion of the study, which documents production practices and quantifies levels of adoption of beef quality assurance (BQA) practices.

Survey results indicate producers define beef quality as producing safe and wholesome beef and raising cattle that are healthy. An impressive 96 percent of respondents say they intentionally influence beef quality on the ranch, mostly through good stockmanship, but also through preventative health practices, nutrition, management and genetics. Nine of ten respondents have a working relationship with a veterinarian.

While 95 percent of ranchers say they have defined protocols for health practices, only 31 percent put those protocols in writing. Ahola notes this suggests an opportunity for more producers to document their practices, potentially qualifying their cattle for market premiums and helping assure consumers.

Over 98 percent of ranchers do not use electric cattle prods as their primary driving tool, and half don’t use them at all. Of those who use prods, 86 percent use them on fewer than 10 percent of cattle.

The NBQA report is packed with results that could help build a positive public image for beef. Asked for reasons why they follow BQA guidelines for example, 87 percent of producers respond that it is the right thing to do, and 84 percent say they are committed to improvement, while just 35 percent say they expect market premiums.

Ahola credits the national and state BQA programs for influencing significant progress illustrated in the 2011 audit, but each of the presenters stressed this is not a time to relax. Protecting beef quality and consumer trust requires steady focus, commitment, transparency and communications between sectors.

An executive summary of the 2011 NBQA, and the conference presentations, are available from the Beef Quality Assurance website.