Humans have been eating beef since prehistoric times. Early cave art dated back 38,000 years depicts what some anthropologists think is the hunt for aurochs (now-extinct bovines that survived in Poland until 1627). The domestication of cattle occurred around 10,000 years ago, and, subsequently, beef consumption likely took off.
Fast forward to today. Beef is still a big deal. Even though, in 2020, chicken is the most consumed meat in the United States at 95.4 pounds per capita, beef ranks second at 57.7 pounds, according to Statista.
Beef is produced in all 50 states. The leading states for beef cows that have calved are Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Nebraska, and South Dakota, according to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA). Additionally, the top states with cattle on feed are Nebraska, Texas, Kansas, Iowa, and Colorado, NCBA says.
Initiated in 1898, and with offices in Denver and Washington, D.C., the NCBA is a marketing organization and trade association for America’s one million cattle farmers and ranchers, according to Josh White, NCBA’s executive director of producer education.
As of 2020, there were 31,316,700 head of beef cows in the U.S. and just under 11.75 million head of cattle at U.S. feedlots with 1,000-plus head capacity; as of 2019, 27.155 billion pounds of beef by carcass weight were produced in the U.S., according to data from the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS).
In 2018, USDA reported that the U.S. exported 3.2 billion pounds of beef by carcass weight, representing 11.7 percent of total production, valued at $7.7 billion. That year, the top importers of U.S. beef by carcass weight were:
- Japan (885 million pounds valued at $1.844 billion);
- South Korea (638 million pounds valued at $1.692 billion);
- Mexico (449 million pounds valued at $869 million); and
- Canada (300 million pounds valued at $793 million).
The retail equivalent value of U.S. beef produced in 2018 was $106.7 million, as per the USDA Economic Research Service.
New Consumer Education Campaign
In October 2019, the NCBA initiated efforts to educate consumers about its Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) program. The program’s goal is to help consumers feel confident about the way in which U.S. beef is raised, White says.
Launched approximately 30 years ago, the BQA program trains cattle farmers and ranchers on best practices and management techniques to ensure that their animals and the environment are cared for within a standard set of guidelines, he says. BQA’s curriculum includes cattle handling, health, nutrition, and transportation. The program’s goal is the production of safe, quality beef under humane conditions. “Today, more than 85 percent of beef produced in the U.S. comes from a farmer or rancher who has been BQA certified, and more than 80 percent of U.S. beef is grading the highest available USDA quality grades of Prime or Choice, which we attribute in large part to the BQA program,” he says.
Until last October, BQA had never been a consumer-facing program. “Through market research, we found that consumers respond favorably to knowing there is a set of animal care standards that are consistently followed throughout the beef industry,” White says.
The foundation of the BQA campaign is a 30-second video highlighting how U.S. farmers and ranchers raise cattle under BQA guidelines. The video is available to consumers on BeefItsWhatsForDinner.com, where clicking on “Raising Beef” leads to the new BQA section.
“The website and video demonstrate the ongoing commitment of cattle farmers and ranchers to caring for their animals and providing the safest and highest quality beef possible,” White says.
Carcass Interventions: Validation Issues
One of the most important issues currently influencing beef quality and safety is the validation of carcass interventions to minimize pathogen contamination in abattoirs, according to Alex Castillo, PhD, an associate professor of meat science at Texas A&M University (TAMU) in College Station. “In my interactions with beef processing stakeholders, I have discerned that validation is often confused with other verification activities,” he says.