Cattle Today

Cattle Today

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by: Stephen B. Blezinger

When you talk to cattlemen across the country you find a prevailing theme to the issues they feel are important. At the forefront, now as it has since time began, is the level of rainfall he has received and the amount of forage he has available. In many cases the next issues revolve around the market prices of cattle and the cost of feed and supplements. More recently the industry has been embroiled in the debate over a standardized system of animal identification and source verification. This last issue is closely related to probably the one issue that is of primary importance to consumers – that of beef safety and quality. The industry is in the midst of a movement where beef safety and quality is no longer an issue only for the feedlot manager and the meat packer. This area of responsibility now traces all the way back to the calf and the cow before it.

Producers have to remember that we are in the food business. We are providing a product that millions of people consume on a daily basis. Granted, per capita intake of beef products are not what they were in the past but we have seen a resurgence of beef consumption as research develops beef products that are more friendly to current lifestyles, that medical science continues to identify the healthful aspects of quality, lean beef products, major distributors such as MacDonald's and Burger King, Kroger's, Albertsons, King Souper's and similar food stores focus on presenting beef products in an increasingly wholesome, healthful manner. Organizations like the National Cattlemen's Beef Association continue to work to bring all sectors together to develop a unified front (despite politics and in-fighting over a variety of issues) and craft a positive image of the products we produce for the consumer.

Thus it is important that producers, large and small step up to the plate and address significant issues like beef safety and quality. This is our focus for this article.

Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) and the programs that have grown up around it are not new concepts. Nor are situations such as e. coli contamination of ground beef or the appearance of bovine spongioform encephalopathy (BSE) on the North American continent. The steps the industry is taking to handle issues such as these are relatively new and rapidly evolving. Every day brings about new strategies to improve safety, quality and consumer confidence in the beef product

Some Background

Griffin, et al, at the University of Nebraska made some interesting observations. Over the years, as people have moved from an agricultural society to other areas of employment the relationship between most food consumers and food producers has broken down substantially; completely in many cases. The consumer's lack of knowledge about agricultural production coupled with concern for misuse of technological advances in agriculture has created great concern for the safety of their food supply. Consumers are worried that their food will be contaminated by antibiotics, hormones, and agricultural chemicals. In recent years, the issue of bacterial (e. coli O157H:7, salmonella, lysteria, etc.) contamination of beef has been added to their fears. These concerns, combined with diet and health concerns for eating red meat and the cattlemen's use of the land, place tremendous pressure on the beef industry.

It is easy to understand that consumers want safe food. What does food safety really mean? To some, organically produced food is thought to be the answer. If organically grown food meets the same strict government standards as food produced by modern agriculture, it can be assumed to be safe. Likewise, if government approved technologies are applied appropriately, beef should be considered safe.

In 1980, cattlemen became concerned that they would lose the modern production tools they had come to rely on to improve the performance and well-being of cattle (i.e. administration of antibiotics, use of implants, etc.). To prevent that from happening, methods to ensure that their production practices were safe and would pass the scrutiny of the consumer were investigated.

In 1982, the United States Department of Agriculture-Food Safety Inspection Service (USDA-FSIS) began working with the beef industry in the United States to develop the Pre-harvest Beef Safety Production Program. The USDA-FSIS program was aimed at avoiding drug and hormonal residues. Not wanting any additional governmental regulatory programs, and wanting a quality control program that was more inclusive than avoiding residues, the beef industry began developing the BQA program.

Between 1982 and 1985, three feedlots targeted evaluations of their production practices and, with the help of the USDA-FSIS, assessed residue risks. In 1985, after careful analysis and adjustment of some production practices, these three feedlots were certified by the USDA-FSIS as Verified Production Control feedlots. The knowledge gained during those three years now serves as the backbone for the National Cattlemen's Association (NCA) BQA program for feedlots. BQA programs have been developed in 48 states.

Why is Beef Quality and Safety Important to Producers?

As almost everyone in the beef industry understands, the news media searches hard for spectacular stories. Sensationalism often overrides accuracy in reporting. The beef industry has felt the repercussions of the media's enthusiasm. While the BQA program may not be the kind of spectacular story the media is looking for, getting involved with the program is one way to show the media and consumers that cattlemen raise beef responsibly.

In addition, with today's climate favoring government control and civil litigation, involvement with BQA can provide cattlemen with an important key for avoiding government regulation or defending a civil lawsuit.

Beef quality assurance is a good business practice that identifies and avoids potential production defects. EVERY industry has a QA program of some type in place. Could you imagine purchasing a new pickup or tractor that has not been evaluated for quality of materials and workmanship from the top down? A consumer loses confidence in beef when they find a defect that escaped a cattleman's facility and entered the food production chain. This loss of consumer confidence in beef causes significant changes in the consumer's eating habits. An example of this might be the E. coli scare and is evidence of the tremendous market loss the beef industry can suffer when consumers lose confidence in the safety of beef.

Another aspect, however is that the consumer does bear some of the responsibility in the preparation of safe food. This is another issue the producer has to be concerned with since, in many cases, the consumer does not understand what must be done to insure safety in the kitchen or at the consumption level. Either they haven't paid attention, the message has not gotten to them or they simply “don't get it.”

For example consider the following information released by the American Meat Institute on 5/24/05:


New polling data collected just as Americans are firing their grills shows that consumers by and large don't know what final temperatures ensure burger safety and don't use instant read thermometers.

To help close the knowledge gap, the meat and poultry industry today unveiled a new consumer brochure that offers timely tips for safely handling and cooking ground meat and poultry - just in time for grilling season.

The brochure was released jointly by the American Meat Institute Foundation (AMIF), National Chicken Council (NCC) and National Turkey Federation (NTF) and can be downloaded from AMIF also is offering customized versions to retail customers that feature retail logos.

According to polling data conducted for AMIF, NCC and NTF last week, only 13 percent of consumers could identify the proper internal temperature for a hamburger: 160 degrees F. Only six percent could identify the proper internal temperature for a poultry burger: 165 degrees F.

In addition, only six percent of consumers always use instant-read thermometers - a food safety strategy recommended by the federal government and leading food safety experts. A remarkable 78 percent of consumers said they never use them when cooking burgers. The polling was done May 17 to 19, 2005, by Opinion Dynamics Corporation, which conducted telephone interviews with 900 consumers.

"The good news is bacteria is lower than it ever has been on meat and poultry products thanks to new in-plant technologies that target and destroy bacteria," said AMI Foundation President James H. Hodges. "However, meat and poultry products are perishable and consumers are urged to handle them according to safe handling instructions."

The groups pointed out that whole, intact muscle cuts of meat and poultry are sterile inside and bacteria remains on the outside. However, when these cuts are ground, external bacteria can be distributed throughout the ground product, making it imperative that consumers cook ground meat and poultry thoroughly. New research has shown that color is not a good indicator of doneness and that instant-read thermometers should always be used. . . . . .

So we see that not only are the producers efforts in the pasture or in the feedlot important, we must develop effective ways in which to communicate with the consumer.

Problems and Concerns about Implementing a BQA Program

The two most common concerns cattlemen have about getting involved in the Beef Quality Assurance program are uncovering a problem they would rather not deal with and the additional work or expense they might incur. The BQA program has shown that cattlemen produce a good product and are good stewards. The problems the program uncovered have typically been easy and inexpensive to solve. In every case, fixing the problems improved the long-term production goals of the cattlemen. For example, treated animals must be individually identified. This provided improved assessment of treatment response, allowing the cattleman to get better value from their treatment protocol. Experience has also shown that a BQA program can save the cattleman money and employees time by identifying and avoiding potential production problems.

Important Points to Remember

As in virtually any industry, cattlemen cannot foresee every potential problem in their operations. One problem area at a time must be identified, then a plan should be developed and implemented for ensuring quality in that area of production. The experience will make it easier to develop quality assurance in other areas of the operation.

1) Cattle will be free of residues and defects if cattlemen START with animals and feed ingredients that are free of residues and defects, and follow the rules for using the modern production tools selected. There are a number of safeguards built into cattle production which helps the beef industry avoid quality defects. The safeguards include:

• the handling of animals on an individual basis.

• the length of time required to produce a finished product.

• great diversity in sources of cattle and feed ingredients.

• the quality control built into modern technologies of beef production.

2) Cow/calf, stocker and feedlot employees, managers and owners must be committed to following the rules of proper beef production and must properly use modern production technologies. Every operation employee must be trained to know, understand, and identify areas where possible contamination with violative residues or quality defects may occur. Anyone who supplies services, commodities, or products to these producers must understand the quality assurance objectives of the cattle operation. Cattlemen must be able to document all the steps of production. Good production records allow documentation, analysis of production, and improved financial decisions.

3) Critical points in production must be monitored to ensure no residue violations or carcass defects occur. The critical points include incoming cattle, products, feeds and commodities; handling of cattle, products, feeds and commodities; and evaluation of outgoing cattle.

4) Some production areas have higher residue and carcass defect risks than others. High risk production areas include non-performing cattle, large single source feed ingredients, and brokers of non-standard supplies. Non-standard supplies include by-product feed ingredients and multiple source cattle.

Cattlemen must be able to monitor beef production to ensure it is free of residues and carcass defects that would violate BQA policy.

Getting a Program Started

For larger operations, employees and managers must be sold on the reasons for working with a BQA program. Then they must be trained. Getting started typically requires getting together as a group on three occasions.

a) The first meeting should provide general information to everyone in the operation. Every employee should be asked to help identify potential residue and carcass defect risk areas (i.e. injection sites, potential feed-additive residues, animal injuries or blemishes form improper handling, etc.).

b) The second meeting should be informal and include people from different areas of the farm, ranch or feedlot. Potential risks to quality in their areas of responsibility should be discussed and ideas should be developed for dealing with the risks identified. A plan should be developed to implement residue and carcass defect control measures in each area. These plans must meet the needs of the employees, as well as management, and fit the routine work flow.

c) The third meeting should also be informal. Review the plan, make any changes identified by the people in the areas, and get started.

Failure of BQA programs during the early stages of development are most often caused by someone in management being reluctant to make a commitment to BQA, or the BQA plan does not consider the needs and problems of employees.

Here is one very important factor - a solid BQA program is not just limited to large operations. These programs and steps are just as important on small, one-man operations as well. The average cattle herd size in the U. S. is somewhere around 30-40 head. This means that a large percentage of cattle entering the food chain are coming from small, individually owned cattle operations. So we see the need for individual operation quality and safety programs. The success or failure of each individual affects the industry in some way, especially as we move closer to source verification of cattle.


Beef production is no longer a matter of running a few cows and selling some calves or putting some feed out for the steers in the feedyard. Producers are in a position now that they must be attentive to the fact that they are in the food business and that the safety and acceptance of the end consumer is a concept of which he MUST be mindful.

Dr. Steve Blezinger is a nutritional and management consultant with an office in Sulphur Springs, TX. He can be reached at 667 CR 4711 Sulphur Spring, TX 75482, by phone at (903) 885-7992 or by e-mail at


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