Jeffrey W. Savell
Professor, E.M. Rosenthal Chairholder, and Leader, Meat Science Section, Department of Animal Science, Texas A&M University, 2471 TAMU, College Station, Texas, 77843-2471
For beef to compete in today’s marketplace, both domestic and export, cattle breeders must better understand marketing. Meeting the needs of the customer is something that every successful business must continually strive to do. Producing a product for a market rather than producing a product and trying to find a market for it are two separate activities. The latter activity has been the area that most beef producers have participated in rather than the former. For success in the remaining portion of this century, and for survivability for the next, cattle producers must target the market more effectively and alter breeding and feeding practices to assure complete compliance with the specifications called for from their customers.
For this presentation, I want to discuss meeting the needs of customers by producing products (in this instance, beef) that are consistent and repeatable. My focus will deal with the quality and consistency of beef in the carcass and/or boxed form.
In the U.S., the beef industry, through the leadership of the National Cattlemen’s Association, has focused its attention on quality. “Quality” can be defined as many things to many people, but current trends on “quality” deal with its use in the manufacturing sector where freedom from defects, consistency, compliance to manufacturing specifications, meeting or exceeding the expectations of customers, etc., all have been topics of interest. Of course, our main export customer – Japan – leads the way in its efforts to improve quality. This is a relatively new effort by the Japanese having been introduced to them in the rebuilding of Japanese manufacturing after World War II by Dr. W. Edwards Deming, a statistician. Dr. Deming’s work went mostly unnoticed in the U.S. until the late 1970s or early 1980s when Japanese manufacturing (cars, electronics) began to dominate our markets, and it was learned that many of the manufacturing plants in Japan were following Deming’s principles. The beef industry in the U.S. now has taken the initiative to look at quality and to see how beef meets the specifications set by end-users of the product.
The outgrowth of this quest for quality came a request for a quality audit. Improvements in quality cannot be made if a benchmark is not available to see where and what the problems are and where the efforts on quality improvement can be made. This project, called the National Beef Quality Audit – 1991 (Smith et al., 1992), was awarded to scientists from Colorado State University and Texas A&M University who were assisted by scientists from West Texas State University and Texas Tech University. The project had three parts: Phase I dealt with interviews with packers, purveyors, retailers, restaurateurs and others about their concerns about the quality of beef; Phase II consisted of actual in-plant surveys where carcass data were obtained; and Phase III where a Strategy Workshop was held to discuss where the U.S. beef industry should be going.
The following table shows the “concerns about quality” by packers and by retailers, purveyors, and restaurateurs (Phase I). The most striking feature of this information is that the concerns about quality from retailers, purveyors, and restaurateurs were so similar, we could group their responses into one ranked set. However, when you compare the concerns from retailers, purveyors, and restaurateurs to those from packers, there is a different set of quality problems or issues. The one that is most obvious is that retailers, purveyors, and restaurateurs perceive that “excess fat” is a major problem while packers list it as number 8 (“too many YG 4 and 5 carcasses”), which is only a problem when the discounts in the marketplace for overfattened carcasses become too high. I suspect that if more fat were trimmed from boxed beef before it arrived at the end-users’ store, “excess fat” would move to a low ranking for retailers, purveyors, and restaurants and to a high ranking for packers.
Phase I. Concerns by packers and by retailers, purveyors, and restaurateurs regarding “quality” of beef.
|Excessive external fat
|Incidence of injection-site blemishes
|Incidence of injection-site blemishes
|Excessive carcass weights
|Too large ribeyes;
excessive box weights
|Excessive seam fat
|Implant-related reduced quality
|Low overall uniformity
|Low overall cutability
|Too few U.S. Choice
|Too many YG 4 and 5 carcasses
|Low overall palatability
|Lack of uniformity of cattle and carcasses
Presented below are the means, standard deviations, and minimum and maximum values for USDA grade traits for the Phase II portion of the NBQA. It may be that the means were not surprising to most, but what was surprising were the large standard deviations (a measure of the variation in the sample) and the wide range represented in the minimum and maximum values. The last such official survey of what the population of beef consisted of was conducted in 1974. In the seventeen years since that survey, U.S. beef has become heavier (about 81.5 pounds additional carcass weight), ribeyes have become larger (about 1.08 in2), and there is less kidney, pelvic and heart fat (0.8%). Adjusted fat thickness has decreased by less than one millimeter (.03 in) and USDA Yield Grade has been reduced by only .3 since 1974. While fat thickness has remained virtually constant since that time, marbling and USDA Quality Grade have been significantly reduced. Marbling has gone from high Small to low Small, and USDA Quality Grade has been reduced slightly also. The most damaging effect of this decrease in quality is that in 1974 approximately 74% of the carcasses from fed steers and heifers graded U.S. Prime and U.S. Choice; in 1991, only about 54% of the carcasses grade U.S. Prime and U.S. Choice. Simply put, there has been about a 20% point decline in U.S. Prime and U.S. Choice in seventeen years. This does not bode well for providing top quality beef for the Japanese export market or for the top supermarket and hotel and restaurant trade in the U.S. Improving the genetics for marbling in cattle can help stop this decline from reaching a point of no return.
Phase II. Means, standard deviations, and minimum and maximum values for USDA grade traits for the National Beef Quality Audit – 1991, Phase II.
|USDA Yield Grade
|USDA Quality Grade
|Adjusted fat thickness, in.
|Ribeye area, sq. in.
and heart fat, %
|Carcass weight, pounds
In Phase III, the objectives that came out of the National Beef Quality Audit Workshop were to: (1) Attack Waste – by reducing excessive external fat, decreasing excessive seam fat, improving overall cutability, and increasing understanding of the value of closer-trimmed product; (2) Enhance Taste – by improving overall palatability, increasing tenderness, and assuring sufficient marbling; (3) Improve Management – by lessening occurrence of injection-site blemishes, decreasing hide problems (caused by brands, insects, parasites, and mud/feces/urine), improving implantation practices and protocols, decreasing bruises, reducing liver abscesses, and lowering incidence of dark cutters; and (4) Control Weight – by reducing excessive weights of live cattle and carcasses, lessening occurrence of excessive weights of beef in boxes and lowering incidence of ribeyes/loineyes that are too large.
One way to document the effects of not meeting specification targets is to put the cost of failure in economic terms. The amount of “lost opportunity” per steer and heifer slaughtered in 1991 was $279.82, with specific losses for each objective defined above as follows: (1) Waste (total = $219.25) with $111.99 for excessive external fat, $62.94 for excessive seam fat, $14.85 for fat in excess of 20% in beef trimmings, and $29.47 for incorrect muscling and muscle:bone (either too much or too little); (2) Taste (total = $28.81) with $2.89 for inadequate overall palatability (especially inadequate tenderness), $21.68 for insufficient marbling, $3.80 for maturity problems (too young or too old at the time of slaughter) and $0.44 for gender problems (failure to castrate; pregnancies); (3) Management (total = $27.26) with $16.88 for hide defects, $1.35 for carcass pathology, $0.56 for liver pathology, $0.35 for tongue infection, $1.74 for injection-site blemishes, $1.00 for bruises, $5.00 for dark cutters, and $0.38 for grubs, blood-splash, calluses, yellow fat; and (4) Weight (total = $4.50) with $4.50 for carcasses weighing less than 625 pounds or more than 825 pounds.
For the most part, livestock producers tell us that “if the packers will only pay us for what our animals are really worth, we will produce anything they want.”Producers have been frustrated at the apparent lack of monetary differentiation among market animals with great variation in quality and carcass composition. The term that has been used to describe defining specifications for markets and working to price cattle, carcasses and/or cuts for their individual merit, not for some group average, is value-based marketing. Without market differentiation, no real incentives are given for producers to purchase “better” breeding stock, for feeders to sort animals to better meet slaughter endpoints or not to overfeed, for packers to trim boxed beef more closely rather than selling excess fat down the chain, and for retailers and purveyors to purchase products differently than in the past. The U.S. beef industry found that something had to be done to ensure that value-based marketing was implemented in the near future. The Value Based Marketing Task Force (1990) was assembled under the combined auspices of the Beef Industry Council of the National Live Stock and Meat Board and the National Cattlemen’s Association. Membership on the Task Force came from seed-stock and cow-calf producers, feeders, packers, purveyors and retailers. The Task Force met several times beginning in late 1989 and ending in mid 1990 to discuss problems with the current marketing system for beef and to arrive at an action plan for solving the problems associated with “average-based” marketing.
In its report (Value Based Marketing Task Force, 1990), the Task Force identified this clearly stated objective as its goal: “To improve production efficiency by reducing excess trimmable fat by 20% and increasing lean production by 6%, both by 1995, while maintaining the eating qualities of beef.” The Task Force listed eight consensus points that serve as specific research areas or priorities to accomplish the stated objective of reducing excess trimmable fat and increasing lean production. Brief discussions of individual consensus points follow.
Consensus Point 1: Communicating value to the retail industry is critical to reducing waste fat production.
In 1986, retailers across the United States began the “War on Fat” with the adoption of “1/4-inch Trim Specifications” programs. This was the result of the major finding of the National Consumer Retail Beef Study (Cross et al., 1986; Savell et al., 1989) that closer trimming of retail cuts could result in an improved image for and sales of beef. The National Beef Market Basket Survey (Savell et al., 1991) found that: (a) the average fat thickness of retail cuts of beef was .1 inch, and (b) over 42% of beef cuts had no external fat. Retailers had responded to the clear message that for beef to be competitive in the marketplace, it had to have less trimmable fat than at any point in the past. The Task Force felt that the retail segment of the beef industry has done its part for beef; however, the rest of the industry is lagging far behind in reducing the amount of excess fat production.
The main factor identified by the Task Force for the lack of response by the rest of the industry was the lack of clear economic signals being sent from retailers back through the beef chain. It was felt that the retail segment did not have the information available that would show what the value of closely trimmed, higher cutability primals and subprimals should be worth. Therefore, conducting research to gather new cutability information or taking existing cutability information and disseminating it was considered a high priority to help everyone in the beef industry make more informed purchase decisions.
Five recommendations for information needs were listed in the Task Force report:
1. Carcass to primal cut. Called for developing cutability information from the carcass to the primal cut that reflects differences in cutting style, sex-class, breed-type and fat trim effects. This information is reported in Griffin (1989).
2. Primal to retail cut. Called for developing cutability or yield data from the primal to the subprimal to interface with the information obtained in Griffin (1989). The information will reflect differences in trim level, cutting style, bone-in versus boneless, and other factors related to the yield of retail cuts from various subprimals. This information is now complete and is reported in Garrett et al. (1991).
3. Retail simulation. Called for a retail simulation study to determine all of the factors needed for a “value equation” of closer trimmed beef. A simulated backroom of a retail store was constructed in the Rosenthal Meat Science and Technology Center at Texas A&M. This backroom had cutting tables, bandsaws, wrapping machines and the other usual features found in a supermarket. In addition to using this facility to obtain cutting test information, trained meat cutters from the meat cutting school at the Texas State Technical College at Waco were used to obtain time and motion information on the possible labor savings that could accrue to retailers to cut closer trimmed subprimals compared to the regularly trimmed commodity products. The time and motion information is contained in the report by Garrett et al. (1991).
4. Develop user-friendly software. Called for developing user-friendly software to aid packers and retailers with making decisions regarding selling/purchasing closer trimmed beef. As a feature of the information gathered for Recommendations 2 and 3 above, a software program, called CARDS – computer assisted retail decision support – was developed by animal scientists and computer specialists at Texas A&M University (Walter et al., 1991). This software was released to the public at the National American Wholesale Grocers Association and National Grocers Association Meat Operations Meeting in Kansas City on September 30, 1991. The CARDS system allows comparisons among different purchasing options for commodity (up to 1-inch, 1/2-inch or 1/4-inch maximum external fat boxed beef cuts when cut into retail cuts with three different fat trim specifications – 1/4-inch, 1/8-inch or no external fat. Information generated by CARDS includes gross profit, net profit per hundred pounds (45.4 kg) cut, cutting yields, and labor costs. The CARDS program is being distributed to interested parties at no-cost to get the maximum use of the information by the different segments of the industry.
5. Develop communication workshops for the industry. Called for conducting workshops that would help in the dissemination of cutability information to the various segments of the beef industry. With the unveiling of the CARDS system at Kansas City in September, 1991, the dissemination phase of the packer-to-retailer cutability information has begun. It will consist of hands-on workshops, meetings, one-on-one visits, and other methods of information transfer. When the packer-to-retailer information transfer process has reached a saturation point, the feeder-to-packer interface will be concentrated on. It is important that the educational process occur at the interfaces between the various segments at the point nearest the consumer and work back from there. Attempts to work from the producer forward likely would be counterproductive without the other segments demanding new and improved products.
Consensus Point 2: Closely-trimmed boxed beef should be an option in the marketplace.
This point is related to Consensus Point 1. With retail cuts having less than .13 in fat, and with boxed beef, for the most part, coming into the backrooms of retail stores with up to .98 in of external fat, a tremendous amount of fat is being trimmed at retail that should be coming off before or should never be put on in the first place.
Excel Corporation introduced a line of closely trimmed boxed beef soon after the “1/4-inch trim specification” revolution hit in 1986 (Cross et al., 1986). This product was called “Perfect Trim,” and it had a fat trim specification of .5 inch. Excel pulled the product from the market in 1990 because of slow sales. Retailers were willing to pay less for the commodity product and trim it themselves rather than paying the upcharge for Perfect Trim.
Excel also faced a problem in the marketplace because it had the only closely trimmed product available from the major packers. Retailers faced the dilemma of comparing commodity prices to Perfect Trim prices, which could differ substantially based on the cut. Without competition to price compare against, most retailers stayed with commodity products. Unfortunately, the CARDS system was not developed in time to be used to compare yields and cutting times from commodity cuts and closer trimmed cuts such as Perfect Trim.
By the summer of 1993, IBP, Monfort and Excel were offering their own versions of subprimal cuts trimmed to .25 in or less. With the three top beef companies competing for the closer trimmed subprimal market, retailers can price one packer against the other. Having a substantial market for closer trimmed subprimals is important to cattle producers; without this market, there is no incentive for packers to purchase higher cutability cattle if up to 1 inch of fat on each cut can be sold for the same price as the lean.
Consensus Point 3: The beef industry should develop packaging systems to meet marketing/merchandising demands.
The beef industry lags behind the poultry industry in the availability of case-ready retail products. The Task Force felt that with successful case-ready products, packers would be able to better define the types and qualities of the raw materials (fed cattle) necessary to fit their programs. A criticism of case-ready beef has been that when vacuum packaging is used as the packaging medium, the resulting color of beef in the deoxymyoglobin state is purple. Both poultry and pork, because of lower levels of myoglobin in the muscle, do not become as dark in color when oxygen is removed in the vacuum packaging process. Studies have shown that once consumers purchase and use case-ready beef, they are likely to purchase additional products; the problem lies in getting consumers to purchase the product the first time. Packaging technology thus appears to be an important constraint in successful case-ready programs for beef.
Consensus Point 4: There is currently inadequate data to clearly understand, and therefore respond to varying consumer demands for quality.
A big criticism of the beef industry is apparent lack of producing to specific targets. The beef industry generally attempts to sell what it produces rather than determine what the market wants and then adjust breeding and feeding programs to produce such. Most will agree that there is more than one market for beef. The National Consumer Retail Beef Study found that some consumers preferred Choice because of its taste characteristics while other consumers preferred Select because of its leanness. Today, markets exist for Prime, high and average Choice (Certified Angus Beef, Monfort’s Chef’s Exclusive, Excel’s Sterling Silver), Choice, and Select. What the beef industry does not know is the size of these markets today and what will their size be in the short- and long-term.
Data are needed not only for large and small metropolitan markets, but for retail and foodservice sectors as well. Until more definitive information is available to tell the beef industry what it should be producing, there will be no real targets to aim for resulting in the possibility of having vast under- or oversupplies of particular qualities of beef that may cause market prices to vary tremendously.
A step in the right direction to learn what consumers want in beef is the Customer Satisfaction project. This project, which is coordinated by the National Live Stock and Meat Board on behalf of the Cattlemen’s Beef Promotion and Research Board, is being conducted by Texas A&M University, Colorado State University, and Yankelovich Partners with cooperation from Texas Tech University and the Standardization Branch of the Agricultural Marketing Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Top loin (strip) steaks, top round steaks and top sirloin steaks from carcasses of different degrees of marbling: Modest and Moderate (representing average to high Choice), Small (low Choice), Slight + (high Select) and Slight – (low Select) are being distributed to consumers in Houston, Philadephia, Chicago, and San Francisco. Each household will prepare (cookery method and degree of doneness) the steaks as they usually do. Results of this study will give additional insight into the consumer preferences of steaks of different qualities as prepared in the home. Results will be available in 1995.
Consensus Point 5: Changing quality and yield grade lines would reduce excess fat production, but may present risks to the market potential for beef.
For the past several decades, the USDA quality grades for beef have been changed (usually lowered) in an effort to reduce the amount of carcass fat produced associated with the minimum requirement for Choice. The last such change occurred in 1975 when, along with other changes, the marbling line for Choice within A maturity was flattened so that increasing maturity within A maturity did not require a corresponding increase in marbling. That change was controversial in that it did not actually go in place until 1976 until after the legal challenges to USDA were defeated. USDA attempted to further reduce the marbling requirements for Choice in the early 1980s; that proposal had solid backing from the National Cattlemen’s Association, but was soundly defeated by groups and individuals further down the marketing chain. Attempting to change beef grades has moved from being a scientifically based procedure to a highly charged political mudslinging battle.
There is some evidence that changing the marbling requirements for Choice from Small 00 to Slight 50 and moving the yield grade 4 line to the existing yield grade 3.5 line could result in a minor reduction in fat produced. James O. Sanders and Mark Thallman of the Department of Animal Science at Texas A&M University modeled these changes using existing information and predicted that there would be less excess fat produced under this proposed scenario. The Task Force considered this and recommended no change in existing grades at this moment because the political liability would be too great.
Consensus Point 6: The beef industry should pursue research and development of an instrument for the assessment of carcass value.
Beef grading currently requires that carcasses be chilled and ribbed before the quality and yield grades are assessed. This one- or two-day delay between the time of slaughter and the time of evaluation for grading and the use of humans in grading are two of the factors involved in the reluctance of cattle feeders to trade “on-the-rail” (see Consensus Point 7). The need to chill carcasses before grade assignment limits packers’ ability to adopt new technologies such as hot boning. The development of an instrument to accurately grade beef before chilling could alleviate these problems.
The Task Force recommended that the beef industry draft a master plan for the research and development of an instrument capable of evaluating carcass leanness, marbling and maturity. The Task Force stated that the proposed instrument should accomplish the following objectives:
1. The instrument must be able to predict percentage or pounds of lean, marbling (or percent chemical fat) and maturity with a high degree of accuracy.
2. The instrument must have a high level of accuracy and precision (repeatability) on individual independent variables.
3. The instrument must be designed for slaughter rail application and be strategically located (perhaps before the hide is removed) so that the system does not prohibit the adoption of existing or new processing technologies by packers.
4. The instrument must be capable of evaluating all carcass traits and computing the dependent variables (percentage or pounds of lean, marbling and skeletal maturity) at projected industry production rates, realizing the possibility exists of having more than one instrument on-line.
5. The instrument must be able to withstand extremes in temperature (0 to 40¡C) and humidity (up to 100 percent) without losing accuracy and precision.
6. The instrument must be tamper-proof, to prevent errors in assessment.
7. The precise recalibration of the instrument must be accomplished quickly and easily.
A request for proposals was issued by the National Cattlemen’s Association on behalf of the Beef Board, and eight proposals were received. A research team from the University of Illinois was awarded the contract to begin developing an instrument centered on ultrasonics to achieve the above stated objectives. This is a long-term initiative that will likely take until the end of the century to accomplish all of the stated objectives.
Consensus Point 7: Fed cattle should be valued on an individual carcass basis rather than an average live price.
Today, most cattle are sold to the packer on a lot basis. Cattle are accumulated from several sources, from different genetic backgrounds and ages, and are fed together with the hope that, on the average, the lot will sell for more money than the initial cost of the feeder cattle plus feed and the other associated expenses. Within most every lot, there are cattle that have significantly above-average cutability and quality while there are cattle that have significantly below-average cutability and quality. In short, the good ones compensate for the bad ones. In fact, there are premiums and discounts associated with this method of marketing cattle: cattle with inferior genetics that are under- or overfinished receive premiums while those with superior genetics that are correctly finished receive discounts compared to their actual worth.
One solution to the marketing of individual carcasses is for cattle producers to sell on a “grade and yield” basis. Unfortunately, many cattle feeders refer to this marketing option as “grade and steal.” Although mistrust between buyer (packers) and sellers (feeders) is nothing new, moving the ownership transfer location from the feeder’s turf (pen) to the packer’s turf (cooler) is of major concern to feeders. Feeders, generally, do not understand packing operations, USDA quality and yield grades, chilling and ribbing conditions, etc. In addition, there have been some allegations that packers will not “fight” for grade placement (e.g., trying to move borderline Choice carcasses into the Choice grade) with the USDA graders on grade and yield carcasses with the same enthusiasm as they will for cattle purchased live. Also, the issue of regrades, those carcasses that do not grade Choice on the initial pass through the grading stand, but are subsequently graded latter on a regrade rail or when the carcasses are brought past the grading stand again, is a problem. Most feeders believe that the only Choice carcasses they will be paid for are those that are graded on the initial pass through the grading stand, not those graded as regrades. Until there is greater understanding or trust between feeders and packers, grade and yield selling will remain a limited marketing option.
Consensus Point 8: The beef industry should conduct research aimed at clearly identifying the genetics of carcass merit.
For value-based marketing to be a success, making fundamental changes in the cow herd to reduce fat while maintaining quality is a must. Current sire evaluation programs provide limited carcass data. If cattle producers wished to select breeding stock for improved carcass merit today, it would be impossible to obtain enough information to do so.
The Task Force recommended that the beef industry prepare requests for proposals that would accomplish the following: (a) develop improved methods of identifying beef sires that express desirable traits for marbling and lean composition, and (b) identify genes (gene probes) that influence marbling, tenderness, muscling and fatness. Proposals have been awarded to research teams at the University of Georgia for the first project – carcass EPDs (expected progeny differences) – and Texas A&M University for the second project – gene probes. The Task Force recommended that the research results from the two research projects be compiled into a data base from which carcass EPDs (or their equivalents) can be computed and included in National Sire Evaluation programs.
The question that has to be asked by everyone is, are we winning the war on fat? Some major battles have been won, some important battles are being fought and other battles have yet to be waged. In the consumer’s mind, because of the changes made at retail, beef is better today than ever before. The remaining portions of the chain now have to do their parts to make the commitment to reduced fatness.
With the information presented here on the National Beef Quality Audit and the Value Based Marketing Task Force, it could appear that the best solution to the problems identified would be to do nothing. So much has to be done to improve the competitiveness of the beef industry that frustration could result in no action rather than the appropriate action. But for beef and beef producers to go forward, bold and swift changes must be made. It is not the time to back away from the tough choices that everyone must make. The question is: Will beef lead, follow, or get out of the way?
Our livestock and meat industries in the U.S. have their obligations to making value-based marketing a reality. Let’s hope that the remaining portion of the 1990s serves as a springboard to a viable value-based marketing system for the next century.
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Value Based Marketing Task Force. 1990. The War on Fat! A report from the Value Based Marketing Task Force, Beef Industry Council of the National Live Stock and Meat Board, Chicago, Illinois, and National Cattlemen’s Association, Englewood, Colorado.
Walter, J. P., R. P. Garrett, R. W. Theis, D. B. Griffin, J. W. Savell, H. K. Johnson, and T. R. Dockerty. 1991. CARDS System – Computer Assisted Retail Decision Support: User’s Manual. Department of Animal Science, Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas.
This paper was presented at the Farmland Industries, Inc., University Advisory Board Meeting, Plaza Embassy Suites, Kansas City, MO, July 22, 1993.