Beef Quality Assurance standards may improve public perceptions of beef safetyWritten by Gayle Smith
As beef consumption continues to decline, producers need to take advantage of programs like Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) to help the industry retain its market share.
Consumers are concerned about issues like animal welfare and are not convinced ranchers have animals’ best interests at heart, according to Colorado State University Livestock Extension Specialist Kacy Atkinson.
Since the 1970s, beef consumption has steadily declined, while other meats have remained steady or show positive growth. In the 70s, the nutritional value of beef was questioned, with some research indicating beef was bad for consumers, and it was hard on the heart.
In the 2000s, beef had palatability issues, and now, its production concerns are the focus. Many people feel cattle are bad for the environment while others see beef as non-sustainable.
There is also concern amongst consumers about production practices used to raise beef.
Atkinson believes these issues need to be fixed at the production level, using the BQA program as a base.
“The mission of BQA is to maximize consumer confidence and acceptance of beef by focusing producers' attention to daily production practices that influence safety, wholesomeness and quality of beef and beef products,” she said.
BQA has helped the industry enhance carcass quality, so consumers can continue to enjoy beef, she continued.
“Our goal is to produce a good product consumers want to put on their table, and get enjoyment from eating,” she said.
BQA has also helped the industry reduce quality problems like drug residue in carcasses, eliminate pathogen contamination and E. coli and reduce carcass defects.
The second part of BQA is working toward maximizing consumer confidence.
“We need to communicate with the consumer that we’re using the best management practices available,” Atkinson said. “We understand their concerns, and we are using accepted practices to address those concerns. We need to keep informed where our industry is and where it is going. Most importantly, we need to learn how to communicate with consumers what we do in a way they will understand.”
BQA is constantly evolving to meet producer needs, she said. The focus of BQA is on feedstuffs, health, animal care and husbandry.
Unfortunately, less than 30 percent of cattlemen have sat through a BQA program, and fewer than 20 percent have become certified. Atkinson said this needs to change.
“The very last antibiotic approved for veterinary medicine was created in 1978,” she said. “There will never be another antibiotic we are allowed access to in veterinary medicine. Any new antibiotics will be for human medicine only.”
“If we don’t do a good job stewarding antibiotics in our industry, and we create resistance problems, we won’t have anything left to use,” she said. “That’s why it is very important for us to use good practices with the antibiotics we have.”
Consumers are concerned about antibiotic use in livestock. In fact, 82 percent of consumers believe producers misuse antibiotics on a regular basis.
“They don’t understand that a bottle of Draxxin costs $3,000, so we are probably not giving that shot for the fun of it if the animal doesn’t need it,” Atkinson said.
“There is a huge knowledge gap,” she continued. “Seventy-eight percent of consumers think antibiotics should be used to treat sick animals, and 72 percent didn’t have an issue with it being used to prevent disease.”
Unfortunately, thanks to the wealth of misinformation being circulated by beef activists, consumers don’t think beef producers are doing a good job taking care of their animals and are raising them in inhumane ways.
There are documentaries, webinars, books and protestors that all present animal agriculture in a negative light. These protestors aren’t afraid to use social media to their advantage, she added.
“These protestors want to see the animal agriculture industry go away,” Atkinson stated. “There are even companies out there working on beef alternatives that taste like beef, but they aren't beef.”
“A food service company has to respond to these consumer concerns if they want consumers to continue shopping at their establishment and eating the food they provide,” she continued.
To address these concerns, companies like Panera Bread, General Mills and Walmart are creating their own set of standards for how the products they will eventually sell to consumers are raised.
“They have to address consumer concerns because they are the end point of the food chain,” she stated.
When consumers were surveyed about their biggest concerns related to the food they chose to buy and put on the table, they indicated their number one concern is the impact of the food on the environment.
Their second concern is sustainability and whether or not their food choice was sustainable, and third is animal welfare concerns.
Atkinson said it all comes down to trust.
“Consumers don’t know how to trust,” she said. “They think farmers and ranchers are trustworthy, but they don’t think ranchers exist anymore because they don’t understand agriculture.”
Beef producers need to tell their story, be more transparent and explain their production practices so consumers can understand what they do and why.
“If we don’t step up to the plate and address these concerns, as an industry, we are going to see our market share continue to decline, and we may be regulated from the top down,” she said.