Your Reading List

Consumers crave quality beef

News Roundup: Highly marbled beef fits the bill, and pulling tail hairs on cattle for DNA sampling

man with a cut of beef

Consumers crave quality

Highly marbled beef fits the bill
By Trish Henderson

Though the share of AAA-grade beef has increased over the past 20 years, Canadian consumers are still looking for more of the best.

“Beef consumption is definitely on a steady decline, but there has been a spike in demand for better quality. Consumers may be eating less beef, but they are spending more money on it,” James Bradbury, director of market development for Canada Beef, told participants at the summer Carcass 101 workshop in Olds, Alberta.

“There’s been a demand shift: even though retail beef prices are rising, consumers continue to buy the product,” said Bradbury. “Everybody wants the best — AAA or Prime — and they’re willing to pay for it.”

That’s a good thing for premium brands like Certified Angus Beef (CAB), he added.

James Bradbury
James Bradbury

Marbling is the most important indicator of beef quality, and a key specification for CAB; 75 to 80 per cent of Angus-type cattle evaluated for the brand in Canada fall short and nearly all of those cattle lack sufficient marbling.

Dr. Phil Bass, corporate meat scientist for the brand speaking at that same workshop, compared marbling in beef to butter on a baked potato.

“Without butter, that potato is boring. But add a chunk of butter and spread it around — Mmmm — then you’ve got something,” he said. “Marbling is like butter: the more you have, the more palatable the meat will be. That’s why CAB accepts only carcasses falling into the upper two-thirds of the AAA grade or higher.”

And Canadian consumers agree. Sales of the U.S.-based but also locally produced brand have been steadily growing in Canada, setting records each year since 2007.

The success of CAB and other branded beef programs has meant less other high-quality beef available to retailers, said Bradbury. That’s why many grocers label their beef as “AA or higher.”

“Costco offers AAA beef, and Prime in some stores,” he added. “Costco buys almost all of the Prime beef in Canada. High-end steak houses willing to pay higher amounts are the only other customers who can get Prime.”

Still, the market wants more. In the last year, Bass said later, Toronto-based St. Helen’s Meat Packers has begun packing and selling CAB brand Prime.

“To commit to a new sort in the grading cooler and change over to a new label on a fabrication line says a lot,” Bass explained. “That’s consumer demand reaching into the beef supply chain.” Nationwide Canadian restaurant chain JOEY upgraded its sirloin menu feature to CAB Prime last May and reports brisk sales.

Such growing demand can mean more revenue for cattle producers using Angus genetics, “if they take advantage of the marbling genetics available within the breed,” Bass said. Premiums for CAB-qualifying carcasses in Canada have been $3 to $4 per cwt or about $30 per head. In the U.S., CAB grid premiums have been twice that at times, and Prime premiums double that again.

Of the 43 million pounds CAB licensed partners sold in Canada in 2013, most was produced domestically but almost half, 20.5 million pounds, was imported from the U.S. With a greater focus on marbling, Canadians can supply more of that high-quality beef and earn the market premiums for doing so.

Adjusting seasonality could create another opportunity for Canadian producers to increase margins, according to Bradbury.

“Today, our industry does not follow the consumer. In Canada, we produce most of our highly marbled carcasses in the winter months. Grocers, restaurants and shoppers want to have AAA steaks for the summer BBQ season, but this is when supply of high-quality beef is lowest,” he said.

Carcass size is another area of disconnect in the beef business.

“Since 1975, carcass size has been increasing by an average of seven pounds per year,” Bradbury pointed out. “Food-service customers don’t want a giant steak. In the past, retailers and food service would pay more for a smaller rib-eye and discount large ones. They can’t do this now because all carcasses are big.”

“Cattle producers sell by the pound, but restaurants and food service sell by the ounce,” Bass concurred. “We need consistent carcass size for our consumers to have a consistent eating experience, and that’s why CAB added rib-eye dimension criteria (10 to 16 square inches) to its specifications in 2007.”

In addition, Bradbury advocated for a beef industry shift of focus to consumers and sharing the story of beef production.

“We need to stop talking about the price of beef and start talking about value,” he advised.“Canadian consumers are becoming much more aware of where their foods come from. They want to make sure that it’s healthy and safe and made from good ingredients. People want to know more about what they’re eating.”

Bradbury compared today’s beef industry to the wine sector of the 1970s.

“Back then consumers would look at the wine menu in a restaurant and say, ‘Hmm, do I want the red or the white?’ Today, we know what country a wine comes from, the viticulture practices behind it, and roughly what it will taste like based on those things. We understand how it was produced, so we’re willing to pay $50 a bottle for it in a restaurant. But that same restaurant sells steaks for $50, and what story do they tell about beef?”

It takes both beef and wine at least three years to get to a restaurant table, Bradbury pointed out. But unlike the wine sector, the beef industry has not seized the opportunity to tell consumers about the care that went into producing it.

He acknowledged the exception in the brand owned by 30,000 Angus producers that regularly links its ranchers across North America with chefs, retailers and restaurateurs.

“This is where CAB has done an awesome job. It has taken a brand, given it meaning, and put it next to a steak. The customer looks at that brand and thinks, ‘I’m paying good money for that beef.’ They may not know all of the features that go along with the CAB product, but they believe that the brand is about quality,” he said.

“As (beef) marketers, we need to do a better job of understanding our customers and how to talk to them. And people want to know who the farmers are,” Bradbury added.

Canada Beef is doing its part to promote Canadian beef and increase carcass values. Efforts include sharing photos or stories of Canadian beef producers in retail flyers or grocery store meat case displays, ideation sessions with chefs and food-service personnel to show different cuts of beef, and creating value-added products. The new Canada Beef Centre of Excellence, opening in Calgary this winter, will help further these efforts.

CAB educates consumers and all segments of the beef industry through its world-class Education & Culinary Center in Wooster, Ohio. Bass said, “We are educators and we help chefs, retail operators, meat cutters and academics understand what it takes to raise beef to this level that will not only help the meat-handling end but also drive demand for the cattle.”

Canada Beef works with CAB on projects of mutual interest, such as growing demand for beef in Canada by highlighting the opportunities inherent in quality that can be produced in Canada as well as in the U.S.


The next time you process cattle, pull tail hairs
By Sean McGrath, Round Rock Ranching,Vermilion, Alta. (With permission of the Beef Cattle Research Council)

DNA is the genetic code that determines how an animal grows, performs and interacts with its environment. Every animal inherits DNA from its parents with one-half coming from the maternal side and one-half from the sire. The building blocks of DNA are four base pairs: Adenine (A), Thymine (T), Guanine (G) and Cystosine (C). DNA is arranged in long ‘double strings’ in which A and T are paired and C and G are paired. A ‘gene’ is an area of this double string that codes for a specific function in the animal. By substituting one or more base pairs in the gene (i.e. replacing an AT pair with a GC pair) a different function may be expressed in the animal (i.e. red coat colour versus black).

Technology to examine DNA in cattle has been around for several years, however, in the past it has been cost prohibitive. Newer technology called SNP (pronounced “snip”) has changed much of this and made DNA testing a viable option for beef producers, even at commercial industry levels. SNP technology looks for changes in base pairs along the string of DNA. It does not look for specific genes, but rather examines areas that may be ‘associated’ with or close to regions of DNA that code for specific proteins or functions. The advantage of SNP technology over previous tools is that it allows us to examine many more pieces of DNA at a low cost.

SNP technology may be used in several different ways including parentage determination, traceability, trait assessment, genetic defect testing, enhancing accuracy of genetic evaluations and sorting cattle into management groups. (Links to the main Canadian labs: Quantum Genetix and Delta Genomics.

Because various breeds are the result of differences in their DNA, some tests may be breed specific or be more effective in one population than another. It is important to check if any available test is specific to the breed or crossbreed in question.

Most producers will not want to jump right into parentage or testing for various traits, however, collection and storage of DNA on your herd can be a valuable management tool at a relatively low cost. Having DNA samples readily available allows you to easily access the technology at the time and level you feel is appropriate. Some feedlots are now requesting cattle that fit specific genotypes, so it might be worth having your cattle’s DNA samples on hand so that you can be an eligible supplier. Another example: if you have calving problems, it will be possible to rapidly assess whether the problem is with a specific sire or a more general management problem involving cattle from several sires. Collection and storage of DNA samples is an inexpensive way to prepare for these types of scenarios.

It is useful when collecting samples to collect them early in an animal’s life and at a convenient time such as during regular processing. Collecting new sires as they are delivered to the farm, or replacement heifers as they are selected for the cow herd is a good practice. If an animal dies or is disposed of such as a cull bull that you may want to test, you cannot retroactively collect samples. As well, in the event that you want to use testing for serious issues such as calving difficulties or genetic defects you do not want to have to run the entire sire battery or cow herd through the chute in the middle of a busy period.

Since every tissue in the animal contains DNA, options for DNA samples include tissue, blood and hair. Hair is the easiest and cheapest to collect and store, as the DNA in the root bulb of the hair decays very slowly. Tissue samples, which contain a higher quantity of DNA than hair samples, must be collected and stored using specialized containers with preservatives or be frozen in order to prevent the DNA from breaking down, but they work well if you are testing right away. For long-term storage, hair can be placed in a paper envelope labelled with the animal’s tag and stored in a dry and dark location such as a filing cabinet.

How to collect tail hairs for DNA sampling:

  • Grab the tail switch. Tail hairs should be pulled (not clipped) from the animal’s tail switch.
  • Comb or brush out the switch first to remove dead hairs.
  • Wrap five to 15 hairs around your finger about two inches from the end of the tail, then give a sharp pull.

Sample size:

  • Twenty hairs will provide enough sample for basic parentage testing.
  • Forty to 50 hairs will provide enough DNA material to conduct a variety of tests in the future. (Note: some breed associations require 60 hairs.)
  • Ensure the tail hair is dry and clean to ensure the lab will process the sample and to prevent cross-contamination of the DNA.
  • Store in a clearly labelled paper envelope in a dark/dry location such as a filing cabinet or drawer.
  • Use a separate paper envelope for each animal.

Collection/testing strategies:

  • A good sample will be clean and dry and contain the root bulbs. The more samples collected, the more testing options will be readily available in the future. Each operation will need to decide which animals should have DNA samples on file. Collecting replacements each year will eventually provide DNA samples for the entire cow herd. The points below can help you to decide what level best fits your operation.
  • Bulls: Store the sample in a paper envelope that is clearly labelled with the identification of the animal. A lower number of animals, lower testing cost.

Influences a large number of offspring (one-half of the calf crop DNA). May consider higher degree of testing for these animals.

  • Cows: Large number of animals that remain in herd for a long time frame. Half the calf crop DNA.

May consider collecting/testing replacements as they enter the cow herd to eventually end up with the entire cow herd being completed.

  • Calves: Large number of animals. May consider testing at lower levels (i.e. a parentage only. May consider testing specific samples (i.e. replacement heifers, chronic illness, calving difficulties).


  • DNA technology is rapidly changing and costs are decreasing.
  • A variety of DNA tests are available at various price levels.
  • DNA tests may be breed specific.
  • DNA sample collection using hair can be a low-cost way to prepare to use this technology.

About the author



Stories from our other publications