WHat is "Quality Beef"?

A large part of the beef industry’s job involves making sure that beef is safe and wholesome for consumers. BQA began as an effort to ensure that violative chemical residues were not present in marketed beef. Originally called “Beef Safety Assurance,” the program's early emphasis was on assuring the real and perceived safety of beef. However, BQA has become much more than a safety assurance program. Today, BQA programming is expanding with information to help producers implement best management practices that improve both quality grades and yield grades of beef carcasses. Previous National Beef Quality Audits have summarized that the number one leverage point to improve competitiveness and regain market share was to improve beef quality, uniformity and consistency. Additionally, the sectors that sell beef products indicated that improvements were needed in tenderness, palatability and a reduction in excess trimmable fat.

Many consumers are familiar with quality grades and may make purchasing decisions based on quality grades at retail. But, within the consumer atmosphere the term “quality” can be confusing. Consumers and even producers often find it difficult to distinguish between the various and different ways to define “quality” with regard to beef. We can better understand “quality” if we dissect the various contexts in which we consider quality.  Click the links below to learn more about each aspect of “quality”.

Eating Characteristics

Quality beef consistently satisfies customer expectations for eating and preparation characteristics. Expectations may include tenderness, flavor, juiciness, color, leanness, packaging, ease of preparation -- and price. Studies suggest that beef from carcasses grading at least USDA Select are likely to be acceptable in eating quality for most U.S. consumers (see “USDA Quality Grading”).

The desire for improved consistency in beef products comes through loudly in every phase of the beef consumer research. The genetic base for beef is relatively wide due to the wide range of environmental conditions in which cattle are raised in the U.S. Many breeds and genetic lines are used, making it difficult to produce uniform animals important for managing getting consistent products to consumers. Value for the money is also very important to consumers as they select beef products against other competing meat and vegetable proteins.

Safety and Wholesomeness

Beef products are harvested and processed under strict government inspection systems that ensure it is safe, wholesome, and correctly labeled and packaged. The nation’s commercial supply of meat, poultry, and egg products is subject to established federal or state inspection requirements. The USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is charged with ultimate responsibility for protecting the U.S. meat supply under the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA). For more information go to: www.fsis.usda.gov.

The food safety system employed by FSIS to accomplish its mission has evolved to one in which a science-based framework is used to identify and prevent food safety risks. This framework is known as the Pathogen Reduction/Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (PR/HACCP) system. PR/HACCP allows for the use of science and technology to improve food safety in order to prevent the introduction of pathogens in the products we consume. The implementation and verification of PR/HACCP plans have led to a dramatic decline in the incidence of food borne illnesses.

Foreign countries that export meat, poultry, and egg products to the U.S. are required to establish and maintain inspection systems that are equivalent to those of the U.S. FSIS audits foreign inspection systems and re-inspects meat and poultry at the port-of-entry to ensure that foreign countries have maintained equivalent inspection systems. Recently, the U.S. Bioterrorism Act of 2003 regulations included; (1) the registration of food facilities exporting to the U.S. and (2) the prior notice of imported food shipments.

USDA Yield Grading

Beef yield grades show differences in the total yield of retail cuts. Yield grades estimate the amount of boneless, closely trimmed retail cuts from the high-value parts of the carcass – the round, loin, rib, and chuck.

The USDA Yield Grades are rated numerically and are 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5. Yield Grade 1 denotes the highest yielding carcass and Yield Grade 5, the lowest.  Thus, we would expect a YG 1 carcass to have the highest percentage of boneless, closely trimmed retail cuts, or higher “cutability,” while a YG 5 carcass would have the lowest percentage of boneless, closely trimmed retail cuts, or the lowest cutability.

USDA Quality Grading

A beef quality grade is a composite evaluation of factors that affect palatability of meat (tenderness, juiciness, and flavor). These factors include carcass maturity, firmness, texture, and color of lean, and the amount and distribution of marbling within the lean.

Beef carcass quality grading is based on (1) degree of marbling and (2) degree of maturity. USDA beef quality grades are Prime, Choice, Select, Standard, Commercial, Utility, Cutter and Canner. Since quality grading is voluntary, not all carcasses are quality graded. Packers may apply their own “house brand” to merchandise their beef. Carcasses merchandised as ungraded beef usually are those that do not grade Choice or Prime. They generally are termed "No Roll" beef by the industry, because a grade stamp has not been rolled on the carcass.