The latest National Beef Quality Audit shows the industry has made progress toward its goals but it also places new challenges on the industry's to-do list.
This is the first time flavor has been ranked by retailers and foodservice purveyors above tenderness, perhaps indicating tenderness has improved to the point it is considered less a problem.
Keith Belk, a meat scientist at Colorado State University and one of the lead researchers for the BQ Audit, said this emphasis on flavor is a positive sign concerning tenderness but it doesn't mean the tenderness battle is won.
The latest beef tenderness survey, related to but not part of the 2011 audit, showed tenderness held at the improved level reached by the 2005 survey. The 1991 survey showed some real problems with tenderness; about one fourth of steaks were considered tough at that time.
This new audit marks the first time consumer concerns about animal health and welfare has driven retailers and foodservice purveyors to say "how and where cattle are raised" is likely to be a non-negotiable food trait they will require.
These social attributes become more important as the question is asked along the beef supply chain closer to consumers. Further back down the production chain these social attributes are lowly prioritized.
The reason for that is no economic signal yet exists to push this quality trait back up the chain from the consumer to the packer, the feedlot, the stocker operator and the cow-calf operator, Belk says.
For comparison, however, the value of age and source verification throughout the chain showed clearly in the latest Beef Quality Audit. Individual animal identification went up significantly. In the cooler-and-plant data 20% of cattle had electronic identification in 2011 vs. only 3.5% in 2005. Individual-coded visual tags went from just under 39% in 2005 to nearly 51% in 2011.