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.