Every five years or so, an audit of most of the major beef processors in the U.S. is conducted, sampling 10 percent of a fed or non-fed beef plant's kill, and funded by the Beef Check Off.

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 our customers.

I thought it would be interesting to cover some of the highlights of the 2016 Fed audit published in the 2016 National Beef Quality Audit Executive Summary.

The audit evaluates physical issues affecting beef quality, such as marbling scores, fat, carcass weight, bruises, etc., but this year's audit included consumer concerns about food safety, sustainability, animal welfare and more connection to the consumer.

It also included face-to-face interviews; transportation, mobility and harvest floor assessments; 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:

How and where cattle were raised

Lean, fat and bone

Carcass weight and cut size

Visual characteristics

Food safety

Eating satisfaction

Cattle genetics

In the 2011 Beef Quality Audit, food safety was the No. 1 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 5th as a key factor and lean, fat and bone and weight and size are 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 fewer 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), 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. Red coat color continues to decline (10 percent).

Almost 96 percent of cattle arrived with some identification, most wore some sort of ear tag and 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 inch) increased only slightly since 2005 but was a full square inch larger than in 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 in three categories: food safety and animal health, eating quality and reduction of variation and optimizing value and eliminating waste.

It was estimated the lost opportunity value due to quality issues was worth $63.27 for every head.

Joe Paschal is a livestock specialist at Texas A&M AgriLife Extension in Corpus Christi. He can be contacted at 361-265-9203 or email j-paschal@ tamu.edu.

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