The latest National Beef Quality Audit shows that while consumer satisfaction remains high, the Canadian beef industry can make improvements related to carcass quality.
Mark Klassen, director of technical services for the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, presented an overview of the audit in a webinar hosted by the Beef Cattle Research Council (BCRC). The audit was funded by the BCRC, the Canadian Beef Cattle Check-Off, and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.
Klassen reviewed two major components of the audit: the processing floor audit and the cooler audit. The processing floor audit used data gathered through three visits throughout 2016-17 to packing plants “representing more than 75 per cent of Canadian cattle slaughter.” The data for the cooler audit primarily came from statistics provided by the Canadian Beef Grading Agency. A minimum of 25,000 animals were represented in each measurement.
Costs rising on the processing floor
The total cost of quality defects on the processing floor increased from more than $70 million in 2010-11 to about $110 million in 2016-17. “The cost,” said Klassen, “is rising quite consistently, year after year. The attributes measured were tag, horns, body condition score, livers, injection site lesions, brands and bruising.”
Some aspects had positive findings. Horns, which can lead to costs from bruising and additional labour, showed what Klassen called “a slight improvement” from previous audits, with 90.8 per cent of fed cattle and 91.7 per cent of non-fed cattle being polled. The industry loss from horns was about six cents per head, not including the cost of bruising.
As well, the body condition score of the average cow is now in the recommended zone of 2.5 to 3, with the number of very thin (1) and very fat (5) cows decreasing. However, fed cattle continued to be in the 4 to 4.5 range, and the amount of fed cattle with a score of 3 “has greatly decreased since ’98-99,” said Klassen.
Other attributes showed room for improvement. The industry loss from tag, for example, increased to around $10 per head, with tag on 85 per cent of fed carcasses and 57.3 per cent of cow and bull carcasses.
The amount of fed cattle with brands increased to 12.53 per cent, while the number of non-fed cattle with brands dropped to 13.14 per cent. The industry loss from brands was about $1.25 per head, rising from just more than $0.50 per head in 2010-11. This is due to rib brands on fed cattle almost doubling since the last audit. “A rib brand has the most impact on the value of the hide because it’s not on the peripheral edges — it’s right in the centre,” said Klassen.
Some attributes raised larger concerns, such as an increase in abscessed livers, which cannot be sold for human consumption. The audit found that in fed cattle, 68 per cent of livers were fit for human consumption, while 10 per cent went to pet food and 22 per cent were condemned. There was a major increase in fed and non-fed cattle with A+ livers, meaning it has “one or more large active abscess with inflammation of the liver tissue.” The industry cost from liver discounts rose from less than $10 per head in 2010-11 to more than $20 per head in 2016-17.
More research is needed into what is causing this increase in liver abscesses. “Whenever I’ve attempted to explore that with the feedlot sector, I’m told that it’s most likely due to an increased reliance on higher-energy rations, but I think that question needs further examination,” said Klassen.
The number of surface injection site lesions is another area requiring attention. Lesions were graded as minor, major or critical, and the audit found a significant increase in minor and major lesions in both fed and non-fed carcasses. Lesions were most often found at shoulder injection sites, particularly in non-fed cattle. Despite this increase, the actual loss to the industry has decreased, currently at around $0.75 per head, as minor lesions are a smaller cost compared to major lesions, Klassen noted.
“Even though major surface injection site lesions are down, there is still an opportunity to improve on our total number, keeping in mind that now we have one in seven non-fed animals that appear to have a surface injection site lesion.” He added that some believe using a dart gun, particularly when exceeding the recommended amount of product, contributes to this increase.
Bruising also has potential for high costs, given the value of the affected cuts. “The locations of these bruises,” Klassen noted, “is a critical aspect of how much that bruise costs the industry.” The audit scored bruising as minor, major and critical.
The audit found a significant decrease in major bruising for both fed and non-fed cattle from 36.5 per cent of carcasses compared to 44.4 per cent in 2010-11. However, bruising on fed cattle was most often found on the loin and chuck. The number and severity of bruises in non-fed cattle was higher, with the round and loin most affected. The industry loss from bruises is steady from the last audit at about $2 per head.
“The challenge that we have with this is that the producer will lose money due to reduced carcass weight from trimming of bruises, but they won’t necessarily know where those bruises were,” said Klassen. There has been research on using a whole carcass computer grading vision system to identify bruising, though this is not yet available in processing plants. “Our hope is that we could use that camera to provide feedback to producers, and with the knowledge of where these bruises occurred, you might be able to narrow down at your operation or during transport what it was specifically that was causing them.”
Yield grade, carcass weight causes for concern
The cooler audit, measuring yield grade, ribeye area and fat depth, carcass weight, quality grade and dark cutting beef, also highlighted areas needing attention.
Klassen said that yield grade is “trending in a less than ideal manner,” as packing plants noted a significant loss of yield, often due to trimming external fat. About 37 per cent of carcasses were Yield Grade 1, a decline from 52 per cent in 2010-11 and 63 per cent in 2000. “A very core attribute of the Canadian beef advantage… is no longer what it once was.”
The audit found that the average ribeye area has increased to 93.2 cm squared, which Klassen warned isn’t necessarily positive when considering portion sizes. Fat depth in the A Grades increased from 9.42 mm in the previous audit to 16.6 mm, which Klassen called “unequivocally negative, in that it’s up by 76 per cent.” The amount of dark cutting beef is also rising.
Carcass weight has increased steadily over the previous audits, rising from 812 pounds in 2010-11 to 864 lbs. in 2016-17. In fact, the carcass weight of the Canadian steer has increased by an average of seven pounds per year since 1975. “There comes a time when the genetics of the animal and management simply cannot continually put on efficient lean yield while weight is increasing at that rate,” Klassen explained. “The challenge for processors is that they need every animal they can get, and so, at least in Western Canada, there is a real reluctance to institute some of the traditional disincentives for producing heavier than desired carcasses.”
There are positive findings related to quality grade within the A Grades. In 2016-17, 2.6 per cent of the A Grades were Prime, 64.1 per cent were Triple A and 31.7 per cent were Double A. In the previous audit, 1.2 per cent of the A Grades were Prime, 52.5 per cent were Triple A and 43.3 per cent were Double A.
The total cost of quality defects represented in the cooler audit varies based on how discounts for yield grade and carcass weight are applied by packers. “If we applied those as we have in the other audits, we would get a cost of defects which would clearly be higher,” said Klassen. In this case, it would be more than $120 million. If these discounts were not applied, it would be around $100 million. “The truth is likely somewhere in between these lines, and the cost of quality defects is probably above what it was the last audit.”
Consumer satisfaction remains strong
Klassen briefly covered consumer satisfaction, referring to the 2015 retail audit. The audit took samples of four types of steaks from retail chains across Canada, using them in a variety of tests.
The consumer portion of this audit looked at the overall satisfaction with steaks given to consumers to prepare at home, scoring them on a scale of one to 10, with 10 being the best. A score of seven out of 10 or higher was deemed “satisfied.” Of the 1,200 consumers polled in the 2015 audit, 79 per cent were satisfied, maintaining an “increase in overall consumer satisfaction with Canadian retail beef steaks since 2009,” according to the presentation.
“This is the ultimate measurement,” said Klassen. “The importance of these scores has never been higher in my mind. We have record-high beef prices, and I think that equates to record-high expectations that what you pay for is reflected in the quality of the product.”
“The cost of quality defects is increasing for the Canadian beef sector,” said Klassen, adding that this is partially due to the current value of the beef carcass.
“We do have an opportunity, I think, to refocus on quality at the primary production level,” he continued. “We will benefit from some investments in targeted research and communication to enhance industry practices to enhance the results for the future.”
The final component of the audit is a survey of producers, processors and retail personnel on the results and their priorities. A series of short videos focusing on each attribute in more detail will soon be released, and results will also be shared through the Verified Beef Production Plus program.