The comprehensive survey, completed every five years since 1991, evaluates the beef industry’s efforts to improve beef quality while recommending measures to meet consumer and value-chain needs.

Bigler libby
Colorado BQA Coordinator / Colorado State University

NBQA results are intended to help inform producers’ decisions that address beef industry shortcomings, while reassuring areas of recognized excellence. I have boiled down the steer and heifer audit results into six key learnings.

1. We are producing more Prime and Choice carcasses than ever before. Quality grades have continued to improve over time. In 2016, 71 percent of audited carcasses graded Prime or Choice compared with 51 percent in the original 1991 audit. The dramatic improvement is partially credited to a major increase in the number of Holstein- or dairy-type cattle. Just over 20 percent of cattle exhibited dairy characteristics compared with 5 percent in 2011. Naturally, improvements in quality grade were accompanied by fatter, heavier carcasses. The audit observed more yield grade 4 and 5 cattle, while carcasses that weighed more than 900 pounds were up 20 percent over 2011 rates.

2. We can be confident in the increased prevalence of in-plant instrument grading. Today’s beef plants often utilize camera technology, overseen by USDA carcass graders, to objectively score quality grades. The 2016 NBQA compared quality grade data on 9,000 carcasses collected during in-plant NBQA research by USDA graders with camera data collected from 4.5 million carcasses over a one-year period. Results pinpointed that averages in the categories of USDA yield grade, fat thickness, hot carcass weight, ribeye area and marbling score for both the grader-derived data and instrument measurements were nearly identical, indicating accuracy of grading technologies within the packing industry.

3. We need to keep an eye on bruising and other production practices that lead to condemnations. More carcasses exhibited bruising in the 2016 NBQA, but the majority of bruises were less severe than in the past. Of the bruised carcasses, 77 percent had minimal bruising, or less than one pound of product loss from trimming, yet bruises were most often (29.7 percent) located on the loin, a costly region for trim loss. Typically, bruises are produced during transportation, and may be caused by animal handling, comingling with horned cattle, facility and trailer design or other factors. Less than 1 percent of carcasses had extreme bruising that required condemnation of an entire primal.


Further harvest floor assessment identified the need to reduce offal condemnations. Although head and tongue condemnations were down from 2011, there were more observed liver, lung and viscera condemnations. Of the condemned livers, 17.8 percent were caused by abscesses, which may be related to production practices.

4. Evaluated for the first time in 2016, transportation and mobility characteristics earned respectable marks. Representing about 10 percent of a day’s production at each evaluated plant, the transportation assessment concluded that cattle are being sourced from further distances. Cattle are enroute to the packing plant for an average of 135.8 miles and spend about 2.7 hours on the trailer. From a mobility perspective, 97 percent of cattle walked normally with no apparent lameness. Without historical data for comparison, these figures are important benchmarking tools for future audits.

5. Downstream customers indicated that food safety was their number one priority. During face-to-face interviews with representatives from various industry sectors, food safety once again emerged as a quality factor that cannot be compromised. This response is consistent with 2011 NBQA data, but in 2016, more companies indicated that they required a food safety guarantee before conducting business. Food safety has steadily become an implied part of doing business for downstream beef customers.

6. Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) programs are not widely recognized throughout the supply chain. With more than 80 percent of U.S. cattle managed under BQA guidelines, BQA is the accepted standard for best management practices that influence beef quality and safety. Unfortunately, the 2016 NBQA discovered that beef customers are not familiar with nor do they recognize BQA’s industry-wide, ranch-level efforts to ensure a safe, high-quality beef product for American consumers. In order to improve marketing weaknesses and combat negative perceptions of the beef industry, it is imperative to educate beef customers on the positive impact BQA has on the beef supply.

Each audit provides an overall synopsis of its results by calculating the value of lost opportunities, or an overall cost to the producer due to observed quality issues surfacing from NBQA results. In 2016, lost opportunities increased from $47.30 per head in 2011 to $49.06 per head. The increase in yield grade 4 and 5 carcasses is one of the main triggers of the additional $1.76 loss. In order to earn this back in future NBQAs, it will be crucial to address production practices that decrease yield grades while maintaining a high level of Choice and Prime carcasses.  end mark

Libby Bigler

PHOTO: Illustration by Ray Merritt.