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Comment: Quality counts

The final report of the 2017-18 National Beef Quality Audit is due out next March but Mark Klassen, the director of technical services for the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association gave us a sneak peak at some of the preliminary results at this year’s beef industry conference.

To call it an audit is a bit of a misnomer. It’s really a series of audits. There’s the National Retail Audit that began benchmarking consumer satisfaction with Canadian beef. The results of that one were featured in our December 2016 issue. There was a beef tenderness survey. Then there’s the National Plant Cooler and Processing Floor Carcass Audit to benchmark carcass grading performance, and the Production Practices and Quality Priorities Survey of feedlots, packers, retailers and food service operators.

All the results of this quality research ultimately end up being put to use to keep the industry focused on producing a tasty, tender, and healthy product as economically as possible.

That gives you an idea of what to look for next March, but for the moment we have just preliminary results.

Horns have long been seen as a safety issue for the cattle industry. And while you are never going to get a 100 per cent agreement on the need for horns, there’s no doubt about their economic cost from bruising, head condemnations or extra labour in the plant. And that is a message that obviously has been getting through to the industry.

Approximately 93 per cent of Canadian cattle today are polled, according to the newest audit, compared to 88 per cent in 2010-11. The trend line on this one quality defect is pretty obvious.

Tag, the mud and manure on the hide at slaughter, represents a cost to the packer in terms of extra labour to get the hide off cleanly, and meat yield when they have to trim off any remaining stains on the carcass. The last audit put the loss at $8.17 per head or $25 million in 2011.

This is one blemish the industry continues to wrestle with. An estimated 79 per cent of carcasses carried tag into the plants in the latest audit, slightly more than the 74 per cent recorded in 2010-11.

Liver abscesses are another sore point. The audit found significant abscesses in 18 per cent of livers this time compared to 10 per cent in the last audit. The final report will give us a more complete breakdown of the three categories used to discount damaged livers based on what is salvageable, but when the A3 category involving multiple large abscesses is up by that amount we can safely say the costs for this defect are rising. The 2010-11 audit put the economic loss at $9.36 per head or nearly $30 million in 2011.

A disappointing five per cent of the carcasses audited this time around had visible injection lesions on the surface that had to be trimmed as they cause the beef to be tough. This compares to two per cent of the carcasses with this defect in 2010-11.

On the brighter side, when they cut into subprimals like the top butt, blade, eye of round and inside round, they found significantly fewer injection site lesions than they did on the last audit. The results in the outside round cuts were about the same as last time.

We will have to wait for the final report to see how that all washes out in terms of costs for this particular defect.

Branding remains about as popular as it was a half decade ago. Thirteen per cent of the cattle in this audit were branded, compared to 12 per cent in 2010-11. There’s no question brands cause some damage to hides. The last audit put the cost to the industry a little under a dollar per head, or $2.8 million in 2011. That bill will be a little higher this time around.

Given the requirement for branding by some financial institutions and the rising value of cattle which makes them more attractive to thieves, it’s hard to see this number coming down for some time yet.

Bruising results in some costly trimming on the main primal cuts as they move through the plant, depending on how deep they go. This time around bruises were noted on 30 per cent of the cattle. That may sound like a lot but it is a significant improvement over the 43 per cent that showed bruising in 2010-11. This preliminary number is also an average taken from fed cattle and cows. When it comes to trimming for bruises the number is almost always higher in the cows.

Most of the bruises this time were minor, as well, so the amount of trim due to bruising is going down at a fairly significant clip. Klassen believes this downtrend in bruising is one measure of the very real improvement in animal welfare that has occurred within the industry over the years.

There are several ways to value quality. The more we reduce discounts or lower costs, the more money should end up in the pockets of producers, packers and retailers. That’s one way.

In terms of the entire industry, however, quality is the real Canadian Beef Advantage. It’s the meat behind the slogan. And like everything else in today’s market, if you want to sell it, you have to back it up, and meeting these quality benchmarks is a verifiable way to do that.

About the author

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Gren Winslow is editor of Canadian Cattlemen.

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