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.”
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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.
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.