NBQA: The Results

Over the past 25 years, National Beef Quality Audit (NBQA) researchers have made significant improvements to the research process and tools, leading to an increasingly meaningful set of results. Data from the 2016 NBQA are a tremendous addition to the core knowledge gained from earlier audits. Following is a summary of the research, as well as what it means for the industry.

The Face-to-Face Interviews provided understanding of what quality means to the various industry sectors, and the priorities for quality. This information helps the industry make modifications necessary to increase the value of its products. Among the findings…

  • Food safety surfaced as a key quality factor, just as it did in previous audits. To many respondents, food safety was believed to be implied as part of doing business; 
  • NBQA mobilityThe number of branded beef items increased in the marketplace, which matched concerns about size inconsistencies in beef boxes. While size consistency was more important than size increase, large carcasses are making it harder for many further processors to meet customer specifications for thickness and weight;
  • Many companies were willing to pay a premium for guaranteed quality attributes. However, the average premiums companies were willing to pay were lower than in 2011. Tenderness and flavor continue to be the two beef quality factors that drive customer satisfaction;
  • Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) is not currently a recognized leader in consumer-facing channels, which is consistent with 2011 findings. Educating packers, retailers, foodservice, and further processing entities about the BQA program could improve marketing weaknesses and negative public perceptions;
  • Product quality was the most cited strength of the steer and heifer sector of the beef industry;
  • Retailers and foodservice companies identified marketing and lack of progression toward process transparency as the greatest industry weakness.

The Transportation, Mobility and Harvest Floor Assessments evaluated various characteristics that determine quality and value, including the number of blemishes, condemnations and other attributes that may impact animal value.

  • Nearly 97 percent of cattle received a mobility score of 1, with the animal walking easily and normally, with no apparent lameness;
  • There was a decrease in black-hided cattle and an increase in Holstein-type cattle compared to the NBQA 2011, 57.8 percent vs. 61.1 percent and 20.4 percent vs. 5.5 percent, respectively;
  • There were more cattle without a brand, more cattle with no horns, fewer cattle with identification, bruising was generally less severe, although more carcasses had bruises;
  • The number of blemishes, condemnations and other attributes that impact animal value remain small; however, of livers harvested, more than 30 percent did not pass inspection and were condemned. Industry efforts to address these issues have been generally encouraging.

NBQA quality gradeThe Cooler Assessments captured data on quality and yield grade attributes and carcass defects.

  • Since 1995, there has been a continued increase in carcass weight. In 2016, 44.1 percent of carcasses weighed 900 pounds or greater, which is 20.7 percentage points higher than in 2011. While total cattle slaughtered is the lowest in years, total beef production has increased. This suggests a positive sustainability outcome, producing more beef with the same amount of resources.
  • Heavier carcasses could result in an increased ribeye area which, in turn, could lead to a steak with an undesirable surface area. Consumers generally prefer thicker steaks with a smaller surface area.
  • There was a dramatic increase in the frequency of Prime and Choice, and a decrease in the frequency of Select. One of the reasons for this is the increase in dairy-type carcasses that were assessed. While the greatest proportion of all carcasses were within the lowest third of the grade for both Choice and Prime, the majority of carcasses qualifying for Select were in the top half of the grade.

Instrument Grading Evaluation reviewed data that represented more than 4.5 million carcasses over a one-year period, and provided results that were similar to those observed during in-plant research. This gives confidence to the assessments provided by instrument grading throughout the industry. 

Lost Opportunities

Lost opportunities are calculated during each audit to give a value of industry losses incurred for not producing cattle that meet industry targets. During the strategy workshop, participants set target goals for Quality Grade, Yield Grade and carcass weight. The targets are presented in this graphic. These goals, with the actual prevalence of each from the audit and summary prices for 2016 as reported by USDA are used to calculate these values. Challenges arise each audit in this exercise as prices sometimes are not reported, or changes in data collection occur. New issues for 2016 include lack of yearly prices for lungs and tongues as well as no collection of tripe condemnations. The total lost opportunities for previous audits are adjusted to 2016 prices to give an accurate comparison between years.


The beef industry has spent the last quarter century significantly improving the quality of its product. However, there’s no denying that there is room for continuous improvement. While the data show that those in the industry have a valuable story to tell, it’s no help that many in the industry don’t fully know the best way to tell it. In conclusion, the 2016 National Beef Quality Audit observed a decrease in cattle with hide brands, presence of horns, and an increase in the frequency of Prime and Choice carcasses. However, further improvement is needed regarding liver condemnations and carcasses with bruising. An important strategy for improved industry health and success was evident in the research: Utilizing BQA and its principles to increase consumer confidence and enhance industry commitment would encourage greater beef demand and improve beef conformity. Carrying this BQA message from producer all the way to consumers would benefit every member of the beef community.

Read the full 2016 NBQA here. And read more about the NBQA process here.

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