Beef Quality Audits
Consumer satisfaction is critically important to the Canadian beef industry. Regular audits provide the information necessary to enhance the quality and safety of Canadian beef while increasing the profitability of the Canadian beef and cattle industry. An audit helps the industry to:
- identify ways in which Canadian beef may be superior to its international competitors
- identify carcass and beef quality attributes that could be improved through animal and carcass management, and
- measure improvements in quality of Canadian beef over time.
National Beef Quality Audit (NBQA)
The National Beef Quality Audit (NBQA) was first undertaken in 1995 with the intent to measure quality defects which could be managed primarily through the efforts of cattle producers. The initial audit provided a benchmark against which future audits were measured. Subsequent audits were conducted in 1999 and 2010/11. Another is currently underway, with results expected in 2018. The ultimate goal is to improve the value of the carcass by delivering a consistent high quality beef product to consumers domestically and around the world.
All audits involve the collection of carcass data in packing plants in eastern and western Canada, and include all classes of cattle. In addition to identifying the severity of defects, the economic impact or the cost to the industry is estimated.
The quality audit is conducted at two levels, processor and consumer. The process audit is done on the slaughter floor as well as in the cooler. Quality defects or nonconformities associated with steers, heifers cows and bulls are identified. Consumer surveys are used to measure consumer satisfaction with the juiciness, flavour and tenderness of beef steaks. Meat research is also done to assess various characteristics.
Beef Quality Defects
Beef quality defects cause economic losses due to reductions in usable meat on the carcass, and added labour to remove defects from the carcass. By assigning economic values to the various defects, those with the greatest economic impact can be identified. Some animal management practices are known causes for beef quality defects.
The results of the NBQA are used to develop strategies to reduce the incidence of defects, including communications with cattle producers through the Verified Beef ProductionTM (VBP) program. With knowledge of the incidence, severity and causes of carcass defects, producers can adjust management practices in an effort to minimize price discounts and maximize producer returns.
Livers are assessed and discounted based on their classification (suitable for human consumption, pet food, or condemned) based on severity of liver abscesses. Liver abscesses are influenced by multiple factors, many of which are not clearly understood.
To minimize liver abscesses, feedlot operators should work with a generalized nutritionalist to develop good feed management and ration change practices that prevent grain overload. Take particular care when balancing rations that include feeds most likely to cause grain overload, such as wheat.
Research is currently underway to better understand and prevent liver defects.
Bruises are caused by many factors and range in severity. Bruising has the potential to result in critical amounts of trim (over 3lbs) to carcasses, including primal cuts. The majority of bruising results in minimal trim.
To prevent or minimize bruising:
- Use non-slip flooring in all cattle handling areas and transport trailers to prevent falls
- Ensure smooth surfaces on all handling equipment such as gates, fences and chutes
- Dehorn surrounding animals early in age using effective and humane procedures
- Handle cattle calmly and quietly. Temperament is heritable, so cull wild cows and their daughters.
Horns cause economic losses from bruising, head condemnations, and extra labor in the packing plant.
To prevent economic losses due to horns, producers can:
- Use polled bulls in breeding programs
- Dehorn cattle early in age using effective and humane procedures
Tag is the manure and mud on the hide of an animal, and it is a problem particularly when feedlot conditions are wet. Any visual contamination on the carcass following the removal of the hide must be trimmed. Therefore, tag can result in increased labour costs to the packer and losses to producers due to reductions in meat yield. Tag also lowers the quality and the value of the hide.
To prevent or minimize tag when cattle are sold for slaughter:
- Keep pens, alleys, loading and unloading areas clean and dry
- Keep transport trucks clean and dry
- Clean pens frequently and provide adequate bedding, such as wood chips or straw
- Design pens and working areas to ensure good drainage
Brands cause economic loss due to hide damage. The number of branded hides has decreased significantly since 1999.
To prevent or minimize hide damage due to branding:
- Avoid branding or rebranding cattle, except where required by law
- Use alternative forms of identification, such as an eartag or tattoo
- Locate brands on the hip or shoulder to reduce the extent of the damage
- Use smaller brands
- Consider freeze branding
Injection site lesions
Injection site lesions cause localized toughness. They are more common in non-fed cattle. The majority of fed cattle are healthy, finished animals from feedlots and have not been recently treated with any vaccine or drug.
To minimize the cost of injection site lesions, producers should:
- Use subcutaneous injections when possible
- Avoid needles in the hindquarters
- Replace dull or bent needles
Body condition score
Body condition score (BCS) is a subjective measure to assess the amount of body fat on an animal following the removal of the hide. (1 = very thin; 5= grossly fat). Market cows in low BCS are more susceptible to injury and bruising in transit.
To ensure good BCS, work with a qualified nutritionist to develop a feeding problem that will help ensure optimal BCS at various times of the year for the cow herd.
Dark cutting beef
Carcasses that ‘cut dark’ are assigned a grade of Canada B4. Darking cutting beef is dark red in colour, and due to its high pH, has a reduced shelf-life and increased toughness compared to typical beef. 1.28% of youthful cattle in 2010/11 were dark cutters, an increase from 0.84% in 1998/99.
Implants generally increase average daily gain and improve feed efficiency, but decrease quality grade.
All beta-agonists approved for beef cattle increase protein deposition (muscle growth), growth rate, feed efficiency, and carcass leanness. Some beta-agonists also reduce protein turnover (reduce muscle breakdown), resulting in increased dressing percentage.
Bovine Respiratory Disease (BRD) is the most common and costly disease affecting the North American beef cattle industry. Clinical BRD can reduce average daily gain, carcass yield and quality grade. Segregating cattle affected by BRD and feeding them to a finished body weight will minimize and possibly eliminate reductions to carcass yield and quality grade.
Characteristics of Beef Quality
Consumer satisfaction with beef eating quality primarily depends on the
- juiciness, and
of beef products.
The 1995 consumer survey found that tenderness was the number one concern for consumers, followed by juiciness and flavour. Follow up audits in 2001 and 2009 showed an improved consumer rating for tenderness, juiciness and flavour and overall consumer satisfaction. This improvement could be a result of improved production practices as well as the use of interventions such as mechanical tenderization.
Each of these three attributes can be enhanced through good production practices at the farm, as well as at the meat processing facility.
Tenderness has commonly been identified as the most important contributor to palatability. Research shows that consumers are willing to pay more for guaranteed tender beef. Therefore, reducing inconsistency and the proportion of carcasses with tougher beef is a top priority for the Canadian beef industry. All sectors of the industry have a role to play in improving tenderness.
Improving tenderness on the farm
Tenderness has a strong genetic component. Reliable DNA markers are commercially available in seedstock selection decisions.
Proper animal health practices will minimize the risk of injection site lesions that result in localized toughness.
Selection of young cattle for beef production enhances tenderness. Typically, both the amount of connective tissue (collagen) and the resistance of collagen to breakdown during cooking increases as animals become older.
Properly matching the growth promotants (implants and feed additives) used to the cattle being fed can help to minimize some of the avoidable toughness issue.
Improving tenderness at the processor
Truckers and processing facilities can help ensure tenderness by handling animals carefully to minimize stress during transport and before stunning.
Tenderness can also be improved by electrical stimulation of the beef carcass and controlled carcass chilling. Appropriate aging of certain beef cuts in temperature-controlled environments enhances tenderness through the actions of natural enzymes which soften muscle fibers.
A Processor's Perspective on Carcass Quality
To learn more on this topic, see the fact sheets posted on the right side of this page. External resources are listed below.
Canadian beef quality audit (1998-99)
The Canadian Veterinarian Journal
Canadian beef quality audit (1997)
The Canadian Veterinary Journal
Verified Beef ProductionTM (VBP)
Several fact sheets available on how to prevent carcass defects.
Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Beef Cattle - 2013
Feedback and questions on the content of this page are welcome. Please e-mail us at info [at] beefresearch [dot] ca.This topic was last revised on June 16, 2014 at 10:06 AM.
2010/11 Beef Carcass Audit Full Brochure
2010/11 Beef Carcass Audit Fact Sheet
2017/18 National Beef Quality Audit
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Canada’s 2009 Beef Consumer Satisfaction Survey
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Dark Cutting Beef
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2009 Retail Beef Satisfaction Benchmark