Critical technology retains customers through quality and consistency goals in beefWritten by Saige Albert
“It dates back to the early 1990s and the first ever quality audit,” explains Tatum. “The interests of the audit were to improve quality and consistency with beef.”
Tatum adds that the first audit revealed beef products were too fat, too tough and too inconsistent to compete effectively in markets. Since 1991, quality audits are done every five years to analyze industry trends, the current status of beef products and steps to improve the beef products.
From the beginning
After the initial quality audit of the cattle industry, a series of goals were identified to improve beef products. According to Tatum, the results and goals of the 2010 audit are very similar.
“There are still problems with fat, inconsistency, tenderness, marbling and other quality issues,” he says, mentioning other goals include improving the supply of live cattle and delivering the product attributes that meet consumer needs and expectations.
Tatum also mentions there is a strong push in the industry to increase marbling, control weight and size, and decrease variability in beef products.
Technology can be utilized to ensure quality and consistency in beef products, and Tatum emphasizes the use of instrument grading to improve consistency.
By 2005, companies were beginning to utilize instrument-based grading, but he notes that these grades were interfacing ineffectively with USDA grades.
“Companies were using it to maintain records on where they were going,” explains Tatum, “but it wasn’t really until 2009 that the USDA began implementing instrument grading.”
Other issues posed by instrument grading include human errors, as well as regional differences in quality grade.
“The option of camera-based grades increases consistency,” explains Tatum. “Camera-based grades do a pretty good job.”
In a look at the consistency within each grade, one study observed 99 percent consistency within Prime cuts, 62 percent in Low Choice and only 29 percent consistency in Select, and Tatum mentions that the industry needs to improve both quality and consistency in the lower grades.
Of the inconsistency of Select beef, Tatum says, “Tenderness accounted for about 80 percent of variability.”
“I think the industry can do a lot of things to try to improve the marketability, consistency and quality of beef,” he adds.
A look at marbling and
“We have seen quality grades increase from the mid-‘50s,” Tatum says. “We’ve seen some major shifts in the way beef is marketed, as well.”
He specifically notes a shift away from Select beef in the retail sector in favor of Choice, and when Americans began to dine more in the home, more Choice was made available on retail shelves.
“What we have seen recently is a huge increase in the Choice-Select spread,” Tatum adds.
He also comments that stabilization of yield grades has been observed since the 2000s, but the industry has failed to control weight in cattle.
“Weight is such a huge economic driver that I don’t see that 30-year trend changing very much,” says Tatum. “Projections are that it probably won’t decrease, but it might not increase at the same rate it has been.”
While one of the goals of the cattle industry is to decrease variability, Tatum mentions that controlling variability has its limits.
“Anytime you deal with a biological system where we have environmental effects and practices, we will have variation,” he says. “We are producing in a lot of different environments across the country, so we have to live with a certain amount of variation.”
With climbing beef prices, Vote says the industry is working hard to carve out smaller price segments to meet consumer demands.
“We need to hit those price points and keep beef on the plate instead of some other protein,” explains Vote, noting that programs provide products to consumers at a variety of price levels.
He also adds that, with an emphasis on characterizing and measuring product quality and consistency, “The customer has a better idea of what they are getting and a better idea of what to go back to, if it is something they are happy with.”
“Are we maintaining quality and consistency? We are doing a pretty good job in certain areas, and there are places we still need to work and improve,” Tatum comments. “The concept of continuous improvement is the mentality of the industry and where we should be right now.”