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National Beef Quality Audit: What’s improved and what hasn’t?

Joe C. Paschal for Progressive Cattleman Published on 27 November 2017

Every five years or so, most of the major beef processors in the U.S. are audited, sampling 10 percent of a fed or non-fed beef plant’s kill and funded by the Beef Checkoff.

The audits are used as an indicator of the direction of U.S. beef production and what U.S. beef producers, processors and retailers can do better to meet the demands of customers. I have participated in a couple of past audits and thought it would be interesting to cover some highlights of this audit published in the 2016 National Beef Quality Audit Executive Summary. You can review it here.

The audit evaluates physical issues affecting beef quality, such as marbling score, external fat, carcass weight, bruises, etc., but this year’s audit included consumer concerns about food safety, sustainability, animal welfare and connections to the consumer. It also included face-to-face interviews; transportation, mobility, harvest floor and cooler assessments; instrument grading evaluation; and strategy sessions.

In the face-to-face interviews, representatives involved in purchasing across the beef industry were asked how these seven factors affected their purchasing decisions:

  1. How and where cattle were raised
  2. Lean, fat and bone
  3. Carcass weight and cut size
  4. Visual characteristics
  5. Food safety
  6. Eating satisfaction
  7. Cattle genetics

In the last (2011) Beef Quality Audit, food safety was the number one concern, followed by eating satisfaction. These also ranked first and second in 2016. In 2011, how and where cattle were raised was third, followed by lean, fat and bone, and weight and size. In 2016, where and how cattle were raised was now fifth as a key factor, and lean, fat and bone, and weight and size were now third and fourth. Last in both years was cattle genetics. Food safety is everyone’s business, and 50 percent of food service companies reported they required some sort of guarantee of it before they would do business.

In the online survey of more than 800 beef producers, product quality (73 percent) and food safety (65 percent) were the greatest strengths of the industry, but the major weaknesses were profitability (65 percent) and cost (46 percent). Almost half (48 percent) of the producers in the survey had less than 50 head of cattle, and 32 percent had between 50 and 200 head. More than 69 percent were cow-calf producers, 16 percent were purebred producers and 8 percent were cattle feeders. Most (87 percent) were also owners.

Transportation was a new area in the 2016 audit. In evaluating 10 percent of the loads at the 17 facilities audited (about 200 truckloads total), the average time and miles traveled was 2.7 hours and 136 miles. The average truckload was 37 head with an average allotted space of 12 square feet. Transportation is important as it adds stress to cattle, reduces weight and increases bruising and costs. The good news was that 96 percent of the cattle walked normally while only 3 percent indicated any level of stiffness or shortness of stride upon unloading.

In the harvest floor assessments, there was a surprise in the hide color category. Black hides have been the predominant color since the 2000 audit (and they were in 2016, 58 percent, down from 2011), but Holstein (black and white) was up nearly 400 percent from 2011 (6 percent) to 20 percent. This is probably a more accurate measure of the impact of dairy genetics on beef production. Red coat color continues to decline (down to 10 percent). Almost 96 percent of cattle arrived with some identification; most had an eartag, but 74 percent of cattle were unbranded (up from 55 percent in 2011). Horned cattle continued to decline (17 percent), about half of that reported in 2011. There were also fewer head and tongue condemnations (important by-products), but there were more liver (30.8 percent), lung and viscera condemnations than in previous years.

The cooler audit of 30 facilities reported the average USDA yield grade was 3.1 and is essentially unchanged since the initial 1991 audit. The same was true of USDA quality grade, which averaged Select 96 (high Select) and has only increased 10 points since 1991. Most of the cattle that graded USDA Choice in the survey were in fact, low Choice.

Fat thickness averaged 0.56 inches, a slight increase from previous years, but as expected, the average carcass weight, 861 pounds, was 36 pounds heavier than 2001 and 100 pounds heavier than in 1991. Almost half (44 percent) of the carcasses were heavier than 900 pounds. Ribeye area (13.9 square inches) increased only slightly since 2005 but a full square inch larger since 1991.

The assessment of instrument grading showed a very close association between the instrument and the USDA visual graders.

In the strategy session, participants made recommendations for improvements in three categories: food safety and animal health; eating quality and reduction of variation; and optimizing value and eliminating waste. It was estimated that the lost opportunity value due to quality issues was worth $63.27 for every head.  end mark

  • Joe C. Paschal

  • Livestock Specialist
  • Texas A&M AgriLife Extension
  • Corpus Christi, Texas
  • Email Joe C. Paschal

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