Demand for Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) Certification at an All-Time High
by Libby Bigler, Colorado Beef Quality Assurance Coordinator and Jason Ahola, Associate Professor, Beef Production Systems, Department of Animal Sciences, Colorado State University
Instant access to a variety of resources has created a new dynamic in consumer purchasing decisions. Consumers have begun to show an increasing interest in understanding how and where food was raised. In order to enhance consumer confidence in beef, the industry is challenged with addressing and meeting these new consumer needs. This is where the Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) program, originally designed to train producers in on-farm practices that influence beef safety and quality, comes in.
Today, BQA has become a vehicle to address emerging consumer demands. Producers who participate in the BQA program have the tools to explain the beef lifecycle, demonstrate responsible on-farm production practices and ultimately address where beef comes from. The educational forum provides producers with an opportunity to learn industry approved production practices that not only improve carcass value and quality, but also assures consumers that the beef they purchase was raised responsibly.
In order to keep U.S. beef demand strong, beef producers are accountable for assuring that beef sent to the packer has the eating characteristics and product integrity that consumers want. But unlike the poultry or pork industries, the beef industry’s challenge is its segmentation. With this understanding, the BQA program has worked for more than 30 years to provide beef producers, whether they’re cow-calf operators, stockers, or feedyards, with tools and knowledge to effectively assure consumers that the beef they serve to their families was raised with integrity and under stringent quality standards.
The BQA program has successfully reached thousands of cattle producers throughout the country, who are committed to not only food safety and quality, but also to upholding the image of the beef industry. The nationally-coordinated, state-implemented program has become a resource to producers on sound production practices, and has developed into one of the industry’s best consumer transparency tools.
As millennial consumers continue to drive the conversation about beef, their desire to connect with their food creates a prime opportunity for BQA to further engage and build trust with consumers by demonstrating and verifying that BQA is being implemented on-farm.
As the beef supply chain begins to notice and reflect changing consumer sentiment, the BQA program inches toward a tipping point where it has an opportunity to become more than just an educational forum. For instance, improved labeling and verification opportunities are beginning to develop in individual states. With increasing verification of BQA practices using tools like BQA Assessments, the national BQA program has the potential to become a nation-wide “brand” that consumers will trust.
Pennsylvania’s BQA program is the first to demonstrate the value of specifically labeling beef with the BQA brand. Through efforts of the Pennsylvania Beef Council and with approval from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Pennsylvania BQA producers can access a BQA label to use on beef products that they direct market to consumers. The label is being utilized to bridge the gap between producer and consumer by highlighting BQA production standards used to produce the labeled beef. This state-wide effort is a great example of how BQA’s values and principles can be successfully leveraged to add value for cattlemen.
BQA principles are often the backbone of many marketing claims that can provide additional premiums and value-added opportunities to cattle producers. Third-party process verification is available to producers who wish to prove such claims, including age and source verification, welfare standards, etc. Most programs provide their own standards that benchmark and confirm marketing claims. Noting the increased focus on verifying the implementation of production claims, the BQA program has its own assessments to verify BQA practices. The BQA Feedyard Assessment is the most widely utilized today.
Animal care, well-being and feedyard conditions are at the core of the BQA Feedyard Assessment. Designed to be utilized as a self-assessment or completed by a third-party, the assessment is a tool to benchmark key indicators, including animals, records and best management practices. The assessment works to assist feedyard managers and employees in identifying areas of competency as well as areas that may need improvement from a BQA perspective. Currently, state BQA coordinators are trained to complete assessments, which are then reported back to national BQA Assessed feedlots and are compiled in a national database that packers can access to verify their cattle suppliers have completed the assessment and are trained in BQA principles. The BQA Feedyard Assessment Database is the first step in verifying BQA implementation at the feedyard level.
Although BQA Feedyard Assessments are mainly executed by state BQA professionals, third-party verification firms are also beginning to offer the service of BQA verification via the BQA Feedyard Assessment. One of the many third-party verification organizations, IMI Global, regularly audits feedlots using the BQA Feedyard Assessment. IMI Global is also exploring other process verified programs whose requirements overlap with BQA assessments in hopes of building BQA equivalency programs.
The new consumer dynamic is also driving packers and processors to make big moves when it comes to the health and well-being of animals they purchase. Cargill’s recent announcement of its goal to procure 90 percent of its fed cattle from BQA certified feedyards by 2018 is just one example of BQA’s increasing influence on the beef supply chain and the growing need for cattle from BQA certified feedyards. Tyson’s FarmCheck® program also encourages its beef suppliers and producers to participate in BQA, yet FarmCheck® is designed to build upon BQA by requiring independent verification of animal well-being. As the market continues to send signals that not only endorse, but require, sourcing cattle from BQA certified operations, it’s clear that third-party process verification is becoming a much needed service for the beef industry. Additionally, it appears that the market demand for BQA certification that originated in industry segments closest to the consumer (i.e. packer) will likely continue to be passed up the supply chain through the feedyard, stocker, and eventually cow-calf segments.
Very few consumers have the opportunity to actually step foot on a feedyard or a cow-calf operation to see BQA in action, yet the BQA program provides answers to many consumer questions. Although consumers have instant access to online resources, it is difficult to ensure that these resources are accurately demonstrating the commitment that cattle producers have to delivering a product that is backed by science-based BQA standards.
BQA can start making a difference to consumers at the point of purchase. Verified implementation of BQA practices will make a difference to the consumer when they can read it on the product they are about to purchase at the meat counter, or in a menu at the steakhouse. As the beef industry starts providing consistent labels and marketing claims that are backed by BQA principles and are independently verified, it will be a big step toward both educating and assuring the public of its dedication to producing safe, healthy and wholesome beef.
- “Animal Well-Being Audits and Team Member Training”, Tyson Foods, www.tysonfoods.com
- “Assessing the New Consumer and the Trust Metric”, Beef Issues Quarterly, March 2016
- “Beef Verification Services”, IMI Global, www.imiglobal.com
- “BQA Label Approved by USDA: First Label Approved in U.S.”, Quality Care Matters Column, Lancaster Farming, March 14, 2015
- “Cargill eliminates 20% of shared-class antibiotics used for beef cattle”, Cargill Press Release, March 8, 2016