“Without data you’re just another person with an opinion,” said W. Edwards Deming, widely considered the godfather of total quality management control — devising ways to increase product quality and consistency while decreasing product failure.
Keith Belk shared this apt quote while introducing the results of the 2016 National Market Cow and Bull Beef Quality Audit. Belk is holder of the Ken and Myra Monfort Chair in meat science at Colorado State University. He’s been a principal investigator in National Beef Quality Audits (NBQAs) since their beginning, or close to it.
Without data — some sort of compass or barometer — there’s no way to measure where you are, where you’ve been or the progress in between.
And that’s the crux of the NBQAs since the first one in 1991: Assess the strengths and weaknesses of beef quality, devise and take steps to improve weaknesses, then measure again to gauge progress.
As related in a series of BeefVet articles several years ago, veterinarian Dee Griffin, now a clinical professor and the director of the West Texas A&M University Veterinary Medical Center, remembers when and where the fuse was lit on injection-site blemishes, which ultimately became part of the impetus for the first NBQA. He and some others were at a meeting of the Florida Cattlemen’s Association to talk about the industry’s nascent Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) program, which began in 1997.
“A guy stands up in the back of the room,” Griffin recalls. “He says in a very nice way, ‘You folks have a problem with beef. Probably 20% to 25% of the top butts we get in have big knots in them.’”
That guy happened to be the CEO of the supermarket chain Publix. He explained to the crowd that his chain had 4,000 stores. Beef flowed through the company’s central beef cutting facility. Meat cutters were paid $27 per hour.
Every time they were cutting top butts and hit one of those abscesses filled with fluid, they had to shut down their saw and clean up the mess … at $27 per hour. Because so many top butts had these abscesses, filled with fluid or not, he had to buy more saws and hire more help to keep production flowing.
Sure enough, that first NBQA found that 21% of all top butts had those big knots — injection-site lesions — in them.
Since then, beef cattle producers have made herculean strides in addressing all sorts of beef quality issues, through diligent effort and participation in the industry’s BQA program. BQA and NBQA are not the same, of course, but they’re joined tightly. BQA is the conduit for making improvement in areas identified by the NBQA.
Unfortunately, too few beyond the ranch gate seem to understand how much producers are doing to care for their stock and ensure consumers have a safe, wholesome product.
Thumb through the most recent NBQAs, available on bqa.org, listen to researchers explain the results, and one thing comes through crystal-clear, besides overall product improvement: Too many beef packers, processors and consumers either misunderstand BQA or have never heard of it.
“Very few recognize or require BQA for their purchases,” Belk says. “So even though producers are doing a good job, that message is not making it downstream.”
Unless you let potential buyers know specifically what they’re buying — even if what they’re buying checks every conceivable box of demand — you’ve just got a product like everybody else’s. That last step carries you most of the way to getting paid for the extra effort.
“Although companies are listing key components of the BQA program as important to their businesses, they are not specifically citing ‘BQA’ by name, even when asked a leading question,” according to the most recent NBQA report.
“Educating packers, retailers, foodservice, and further processing entities about the BQA program could improve marketing weaknesses and public perceptions that plague our industry … utilizing BQA and its principles to increase consumer confidence and enhance industry commitment would encourage greater beef demand, and improve industry harmonization,” the report says.
“Carrying this BQA message throughout the industry all the way to consumers would benefit every audience,” the report concludes.