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Beef Quality: NBQA strives for improvement

Written by Saige Albert

Results for the National Beef Quality Audit (NBQA) were released last week at the Cattle Industry Summer Conference in Denver, and Senior Director for Beef Quality Assurance at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association Ryan Ruppert says, “We’re seeing continuous improvement in a lot of areas.”

Since the initial NBQA in 1991, five audits have been conducted, each of which has contributed to the improvement of the beef industry and gains have been seen in uniformity, tenderness, palatability and many other important factors as a result.

Seeing improvement 

“After the first audit, the beef industry really picked up the concept of total quality management,” he says. “Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) has become a conduit to take quality management out to producers so they can provide a better product.”

The development of BQA has helped to drive beef demand and connect producers with the consumer and retailer.

“The NBQA is a roadmap for the next five years to sit back and look at the thing we need to do better and the things we are doing well,” Ruppert mentions.

Solving problems

With new improvements seen each year, Ruppert highlights several particular issues that have been solved as a result of NBQA, including injection site blemishes, marbling and bruising.

“In 1991, one of the big things we didn’t even know about was the injection site blemishes in key muscles, which caused major tenderness and quality issues,” he explains. “Today, because of BQA and NBQA, injection site lesions have disappeared.”

Additionally, NBQA has helped the beef industry to maintain tenderness through a focus on marbling.

“In 1995-96, we were getting carcasses too lean because we waged a war on fat in the 1980s,” Ruppert also mentions. “We were seeing carcasses with more muscle and tenderness issues, so now we have focused on marbling.”

Bruising was also a major concern which resulted in large amounts of waste, and because of NBQA, Ruppert says bruising has been cut significantly.

“These issues have diminished significantly because we have improved cattle handling, facilities and knowledge,” he says. “We know why things like bruising happen because of the NBQA.” 

NBQA has also helped turn the beef industry to a quality-driven structure that rewards producers for attention to detail. 

“The NBQA has been instrumental for the industry to hit some of those quality markets and bring our industry from a commodity-driven structure to a value-based structure where producers get paid for quality,” he continues. 

Three pillars

In the 2011 audit, the NBQA focused on several key priorities, or pillars of beef chain success, which include product integrity, eating satisfaction and telling the industry story.

Ruppert describes product integrity as doing the right things in raising beef, including improving food safety and animal welfare. 

“One of the things that came out of the audit was the continuous improvement since the first E. coli O:157 outbreak,” comments Ruppert. “The improvement is exponential, but until the number of food-borne pathogen outbreaks from beef is zero, we can’t stop focusing on food safety. One safety incident is too many.”

With a high goal in mind, Ruppert notes that across all sectors of the beef industry, steps are being taken to eliminate the food safety concern.

“Retailers and food service told us that eating satisfaction is their number one quality factor,” he explains. “They expect food safety, animal welfare and that we care about the environment, but at the end of the day, consumers eat another steak because of the flavor of beef.”

With flavor as a top focus, retailers want to maintain the quality and eating satisfaction to bring customers back.

“Hands down, consumers love beef because it tastes good,” Ruppert says.

Telling the beef story has also been identified as a top focus in the industry’s future success.

“Our consumer is really disconnected, and consumers don’t understand what we do, why we do it and the sustainability factors that we add by using science and technology to produce the safest beef in the world,” Ruppert notes. “Telling the story is a big issue.”

According to the NBQA, for 2011, food safety, eating satisfaction and how and where cattle were raised marked the top three priorities for the next five years.

Barriers to success

Despite industry success, the NBQA Strategy Workshop identified several items as “barriers to success.”

“One of the things under product integrity is that cow/calf producers are not keeping adequate records related to key components of BQA,” comments Ruppert. “We are going to enhance the record keeping tools that producers have available.”

Ruppert mentions that, after a long day of working in pastures, calving, feeding and fixing fence, the last thing many producers want to do is enter data into a computer system and notes that one goal of BQA includes providing more options for smart phone applications for record keeping. 

“I am focused on providing solutions to cattlemen to help them improve their record keeping and their written protocols,” Ruppert adds. 

Along with record keeping, an accurate record of best management practices and training are also important.

“BQA is going to continue to put together best management practices that producers can fill in the blanks,” he explains. “If the consumer or a retailer comes in and wants to see records, the producers will have all the records to show them.”

NBQA reports

“At the end of the day, cattlemen need to go to bqa.org, go to a BQA training and get the NBQA executive summary and start looking at the things in the audit to see what they can do better,” comments Ruppert.

When individual producers get involved in industry improvement, Ruppert says more meaningful results can be seen.

“If they implement these things, they can make more money and protect the legacy of the operation,” Ruppert says. “That is what this is all about – keeping the family ranch in the family and providing the consumer with the highest quality product to maintain demand and create a sustainable industry from the economic and environmental standpoint.”

For more on the National Beef Quality Audit, visit bqa.org/audit. Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Developing NBQA

The National Beef Quality Audit (NBQA) was started in 1991 to help the beef industry improve their product and realize new profits.

“In the late 80s, there was a lot of discussion about how much money the industry was leaving on the table due to waste,” explains Senior Director for Beef Quality Assurance at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association Ryan Ruppert. “We aren’t an integrated system like the pork or chicken industry, so our information flow wasn’t as good.”

After several economic analyses, it was determined that $230 was essentially wasted because of consumer concerns and quality issues.

“The very first NBQA was done in 1991 to validate the research models that we had,” Ruppert continues. “It was the largest undertaking in any industry.”

Every five years since 1991, Colorado State University, Texas A&M University and Oklahoma State University have conducted the NBQA in a cooperative effort. The universities work together to collect and analyze data and bring it back to producers and industry stakeholders.

“The NBQA helps the beef industry respond to issues that we don’t get straight from market signals,” he adds. “There is no way to do this without the NBQA.”