Canadian beef quality audit shows little improvement

The latest audit of Canadian beef quality reveals that abscessed livers, dirty hides and minor injection-site lesions are appearing more often in cattle, as well as a rising trend to over-fat animals.

Compared to the last audit, completed in 2010-11, those indicators showed no improvement and in several cases, were worse.

However, the audit also showed fewer horned cattle arriving at slaughter, which limits injury and costs to the processor. There were also fewer over-thin and over-fat animals among non-fed cattle and a reduction in major bruising.

The audit is carried out to measure progress on several key indicators of beef quality, said Canadian Cattlemen’s Association technical services director Mark Klassen.

Data was collected from processing plants in fall 2016, winter 2016 and spring 2017 from a minimum of 25,000 animals. That number represents about one percent of the annual Canadian slaughter, he said.

Overall, data showed the cost of quality defects is increasing and not all of it is due to increased carcass cut-out values, said Klassen in a Feb. 14 webinar.

He suggested the results present “an opportunity to refocus on quality at the primary production level” as well as investments in research to improve some industry practices.

Klassen said he had no definitive explanation for the increase in abscessed livers among fed cattle. It may be due to greater reliance on high-energy rations but more research is needed.

Some 68 percent of cattle livers are fit for human consumption but 22 percent are condemned and 10 percent are diverted to pet food. The number of abscessed livers has risen in the previous two quality audits as well, said Klassen.

“Almost across the board, whether it’s fed or non-fed … overall the trend was clear and not positive. It’s clear that this is becoming more expensive for the Canadian industry.”

The numbers showed a considerable jump in 2016-17 compared to 2010-11. The percent of severely abscessed livers was 23.7 in fall compared to 5.1 percent in fall 2010, for example.

There is no performance penalty at the feedlot level for abscessed livers, but they are a loss to packing plants. Klassen calculated the loss per animal to be more than $20.

As for dirty hides, measured by the amount of dirt and manure, or tag, on animals arriving at slaughter, data showed it to be highly weather dependent but also rising in the case of non-fed animals and about the same in fed animals compared to the last audit.

Tag increases labour costs at the plant because lines must move slower. It can also damage equipment and has implications for risk of E. coli contamination.

On fed animals, about 85 percent had high levels of tag. About 57 percent of non-fed animals had high tag levels compared to 20 percent in 2010-11.

“The costs of tag over time and in particular from this audit to the last audit have increased,” said Klassen. “It’s not an insignificant cost we’re looking at, somewhere in the range of $10 per head.”

Obviously, producers can’t control the weather but better drainage in pens, more bedding and more frequent pen cleaning could help reduce tag levels, he added.

Regarding surface injection site lesions, the number of minor lesions on animals has increased in both fed and non-fed animals. The number of major lesions was also slightly higher.

Major lesions generally render the surrounding cuts unusable and minor ones also result in waste because they must be cut away from the carcass.

Though most surface lesions were minor, said Klassen, their number has trended upward since 1999.

One in seven non-fed animals had a surface-injection-site lesion. An upcoming producer survey is expected to explore possible reasons. Shoulder injection sites are the primary issue, said Klassen.

The audit also showed losses due to brands on hides. The number of branded cattle has been dropping since 1999 but took an uptick in 2016-17.

Klassen noted some lenders and insurers require brands on their clients’ cattle. However, more producers are branding cattle on the rib, which he said is the worst possible location because it has the most impact on hide value. The number of rib brands has almost doubled compared to the 2010 audit.

Klassen said brands cost an estimated $1.25 loss per animal.

The audit showed a reduction in major bruising on cattle, which was good for both meat quality and animal welfare, Klassen noted. On fed cattle, bruising appeared most often on the chuck and loin. Non-fed animals tended to have a higher number of bruises.

“We did also see … greater numbers of major bruises and the round in this case was the most impacted, followed by the loin.”

Klassen said industry losses from bruising are increasing because of higher carcass values. And although bruising on non-fed animals was less than in the previous audit, it was still greater than in 1999.

Yield grade is trending downward because of the need to trim off external fat, said Klassen. Rib eyes are slowly getting bigger and fat depth is up 76 percent from the last audit.

“On average, we’re adding seven pounds per year” to carcasses, he said.

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