Not long ago, when a retail or restaurant customer purchased beef they got  …  well  …  beef. Sure, there were differences in USDA quality grade, but otherwise beef was a generic product.

Times have changed. Consumers today can choose from a growing list of attributes to satisfy their personal tastes on a physical level, and in some cases their moral, ethical and psychological preferences. For a shopper worried about the treatment of animals, beef that is certified as “humanely raised” could have added value, as does verification of “natural” or “organic” production for consumers who believe those practices improve food quality. A restaurant diner interested in supporting the domestic economy might happily pay extra for beef certified as “born and raised in the USA,” or perhaps produced in their local area.  

Other attributes or practices, such as feeding vitamin E to increase shelf life or using pre-harvest interventions to enhance beef safety, might be less visible to consumers but still add value for retailers or restaurants.

Verification lets it happen
A common thread between all of these “value-added” attributes is verification. Without a system of recordkeeping and identity preservation, food companies would be unable to make any reliable claims about the practices involved in producing a beef product. The same applies to cow-calf producers looking for premium calf prices based on their preconditioning programs.

The National Animal Identification System is still in its early phases of development and implementation. The current timeline calls for a full system of individual-animal traceability by around 2007. NAIS, however, is focused on animal health and disease response, rather than enhancing beef quality or value. In the private sector, alliances, branded-beef companies and retailers have taken the initiative, seeing identification as a means for verifying production practices, assuring quality, enhancing consumer confidence and increasing beef value.

McDonald’s, for example, announced this summer that the company will increasingly rely on beef traceability to help ensure safety and enhance consumer confidence. McDonald’s has set a goal of 10 percent traceability for beef purchases by the end of this year, and company officials indicate they eventually will require full traceability on all animal products.

Swift & Co., one of the nation’s largest beef packers, also is moving forward in beef traceability, initiating its “Swift Trace” program in 2003. Jim Herlihy, Swift’s vice president for communications, says the company has contracted with Optibrand Ltd. of Fort Collins, Colo., to implement the Secure Identity Preservation System in its Greeley, Colo., plant. The system uses retinal scanning, RFID tags and GPS technology to identify cattle at feedyards and at the packing plant.

The system currently gives Swift the ability to track cattle from feedyards, through the packing plant and to the boxed-beef stage. Eventually, Mr. Herlihy says, the company could expand the system to offer individual traceability from birth to the retail case. Mr. Herlihy cites several reasons behind Swift’s investment in traceability. The first is to enhance beef safety. Another is source and process verification, which will allow the company to make specific verified claims about production practices and product attributes. These assurances, he says, can add value to branded beef products in the domestic market and improve the company’s export opportunities, with traceability increasingly becoming a requirement for international trade.

Not an easy thing to do
“Source and process verification isn’t easy,” says Jim Norwood, supply coordinator for PM Beef Group’s Ranch to Retail program. “Otherwise, beef companies would do more of it.”

PM Beef Group supplies source- and process-verified beef to several branded programs including those at Ukrop’s Super Markets in Richmond, Va., and Heinen’s Fine Foods in Cleveland. “Source verification is a means to the end, not the end,” Mr. Norwood says. Retailers, he adds, see third-party verification as supporting the attributes of a brand. Well-defined and verified processes give retailers and customers improved confidence in the consistent quality of the product. PM Beef Group’s retail customers promote their beef with point-of-purchase materials outlining USDA Process Verified production practices such as 100 days or more of corn feeding in a Midwest feedlot.

“The retailers are involved in setting the standards,” Mr. Norwood says. He describes visiting their stores and hearing managers and meat cutters telling customers, “Our ranchers raise their cattle using the best management practices.” By using the term “our ranchers,” Mr. Norwood says, retailers identify themselves as part of the system. They have a direct connection to the producers and the cattle.

USDA Process Verified labeling sends a positive message, Mr. Norwood says. USDA might receive criticism within the industry, but consumers generally have faith in the agency. In a 2002 study by Southeastern Research Institute, 76 percent of respondents indicated they would pay a higher price for USDA Process Verification, he says.

Producer application
By helping assure beef quality, consistency and safety, traceability can add value throughout the supply chain. But it also places some new responsibilities on producers, Mr. Norwood says. First, there is increased accountability, with food safety at the top of the list, he says.

Also, producers will need to learn to adopt new technology, including animal identification, databases and gene markers, and be able to analyze and apply large amounts of data. There will be less room for outliers, not just in terms of grade and weight, but for a wider range of attributes. Producers will need to know the details behind the carcass data they collect on their cattle. Then they will need to apply the information to consistently meet beef-quality targets in terms of quality grade, yield grade, carcass size, weight, age and tenderness. “Source verification is a tool to accomplish the task,” he says, “and process verification is the quality system to back it up.”