More than two decades have passed since the landmark National Beef Quality Audit that initiated a revolution in beef quality and carved a path toward increased consumer demand. Yet the Quality Audits, conducted every five years, remain a critical tool in our industry’s constant effort to satisfy consumers.

In fact, Quality Audits remain so important because the ultimate goal of consumer satisfaction is a moving target. For instance, 20 years ago, “external fat” was identified as our industry’s greatest quality challenge, and one out of every four eating experiences was called “unsatisfactory.” In summation, an industry leader at the time called beef, “Too big, too fat and too inconsistent.”

The 2011 version of the National Beef Quality Audit identifies “food safety” as the industry’s top quality challenge, a term that didn’t even make the list 20 years ago. Second on the new list is “eating satisfaction,” followed by “how and where cattle were raised,” neither of which were mentioned 20 years ago.

“The early beef quality audits focused almost exclusively on the physical attributes of beef and beef by-products — factors such as marbling, external fat, carcass weight and carcass blemishes,” NBQA coordinators wrote in the 2011 audit’s executive summary. “While these are still fundamental to meeting consumer expectations for quality, the industry must now also consider more sweeping issues, such as food safety, sustainability, animal well-being, and the disconnect between agricultural producers and consumers.”

Beef quality evolves

In other words, buyers for retailers and restaurants demand that beef is safe and delicious, but their perception of beef quality has evolved further, to include transparency in production processes. The 2011 NBQA documents producer commitment to animal husbandry and quality assurance. Expectations across the food system, however, continue to grow higher and broader.

Three phases

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.

Representatives of each sector perceive beef quality differently due to different market signals or motivations at each stage in the beef food system, says Colorado State University animal scientist Keith Belk, PhD, who led this phase of the study. Food safety, though, rises to the top. Each of the industry segments except feeders ranked food safety as its 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.

The second phase of the audit focused on visits to packing plants to document carcass traits for large numbers of cattle. This phase of the audit, led by Texas A&M University animal scientist Jeff Savell, PhD, found that an increasing 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.

Beef quality evolves

Quality enhancements in the seedstock, cow-calf and stocker segments were included in the 2011 NBQA for the first time. This phase was directed by Colorado State University animal scientist Jason Ahola, PhD. This phase documented production practices and quantified levels of adoption of beef quality assurance practices.

Respondents to this phase of the NBQA define quality as producing safe and wholesome beef and raising cattle that are healthy. Nintey-six percent of respondents said they intentionally influence beef quality on the ranch, mostly through good stockmanship but also through preventative health practices, nutrition, management and genetics. Nine of 10 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.