The National Beef Quality Audit (NBQA) of 2011 was recently released at the summer NCBA meetings in Denver. These audits are funded by the beef checkoff, and they are conducted approximately every five years. The 2011 audit was conducted in three phases. Phase I was face-to-face interviews over an 11 month period focusing on each phase of the production sector. These sectors include cow-calf producers, stocker operators, feedlot managers, packing plants, food service, vendors, and retailers. Phase II was a large nation-wide packing plant evaluation, conducted on 18,000 carcasses. Harvest floor audits were conducted in eight plants, while quality and yield grade data were gathered in the coolers of 28 different processing plants. In addition, carcass data was also evaluated in the 17 plants that use instrument grading, comparing it to quality and yield grade data submitted by USDA meat graders. Finally, Phase III of the audit focused on evaluating where we are at with our national Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) program by evaluating 3,755 surveys that were completed by cattlemen in all segments of the industry.
Although we may have differences in opinion within our industry, beef checkoff programs such as the National Beef Quality Audit is important information for our industry. It not only evaluates where we are at concerning the beef we are producing, the audit also looks at society trends and new demands by the consumer. We need to not only produce a quality product, but we also need to develop and market our product based on consumer demand. There are several consumer evaluation tools and beef demand data, but the NBQA provides good information on current production, but it also allows us to look back at previous audits and see where we’ve been.
One of the tools developed in each of the audits are top five priorities identified through the various interviews and strategy sessions associated with the audits. These priorities help identify areas of focus for the beef industry. Some of the past priorities included product uniformity, tenderness, etc. The 2011 challenges include food safety, overall eating satisfaction, as well as the consumers’ interest in knowing how and where their beef was raised. These three priorities reflect the overall consumer trend of focusing more on locally grown foods, with many consumers interested in finding out more about where their food comes from and the steps involved in producing it. To me, one of the high points in this information is the fact that issues with external fat, marbling and tenderness no longer appear on this list – we have done a good job through genetics, management and fabrication of improving these three areas that used to always be at the top of the list.
Some of the challenges identified in the interview portion of Phase I are issues that we are all familiar with. Consumers are interested in how their beef is raised, and as beef producers we need to continue to work at telling our story. Other challenges include humane cattle handling and food safety. One of the more interesting challenges identified by Phase I is improving and standardizing the terminology that we use in the beef industry. Many of the terms that we use, as well as the criteria that we use, are not uniform across all segments of the industry. Additionally, the terminology is not understood by the public, and can potentially lead to miscommunication. The audit suggests that part of the food safety and traceability issues could be solved by better communication and more uniform terminology and records across segments of the industry.
Some of the good news from the audit was reported in Phase II that included harvest floor and cooler data from several plants across the nation. The Phase II data indicates that individual animal identification continues to increase. Cattle individually identified with unique numbered ear tags at time of harvest jumped from 38 percent in 2005 to 50 percent in 2011. Additionally, the percentage of beef carcasses grading choice also increased to 61 percent, a 6 percent increase from the earlier audit.
USDA Yield Grade Prime Choice Select Other
1 0.0 3.6 7.3 1.4
2 0.4 22.8 15.3 2.4
3 1.8 25.9 8.0 1.5
4 0.5 6.3 1.4 0.4
5 0.1 1.3 0.1 0.1
Source: NBQA 2011
Other trends identified in Phase II included a continued increase in carcass weights. There was also an increase in the number of cattle marketed through “branded” beef programs, suggesting that there may be a continued demand for cattle that meet specific program standards in quality and uniformity.
While overall quality and uniformity has improved, there are still some areas that need attention. Although beef quality assurance programs have dramatically reduced injection site blemishes and residue issues, there is still room for improvement. Developing better interaction with the dairy industry, standardizing and encouraging written health treatment protocols, correcting differences in terminology across industry segments, and improving overall communication will help to address the consumer’s concern for food safety and animal welfare. NBQA audits continue to provide good information for all segments of the industry. Continuing to address consumer priorities and changes in preferences is an important role for checkoff dollars. For more information on the 2011 National Beef Quality Audit, contact your state’s beef council staff or visit www.bqa.org.