Have we gone overboard in the bid to get more marbling?

More beef is grading AAA or Prime, but lean meat has fallen dramatically – and that's not right, says expert

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If you glance at the numbers, it seems like the cattle industry is getting more beef — and more AAA or Prime beef — from fewer animals than ever before.

But dig a little deeper, and the numbers tell a different story.

According to longtime beef industry analyst Charlie Gracey, the trend of feeding cattle to higher weights comes at the expense of the lean meat yield. In other words, fat is going up, lean meat content is going down, and it’s the customer who’s paying the price.

Charlie Gracey
Charlie Gracey photo: Supplied

“The consumer is being shortchanged,” he said. “The industry is supplying more fat and less lean meat than ever to a consumer who is generally unaware. The fat the consumer pays for was removed in the trimming process, but somebody — and who else but the consumer? — had to pay for that production.”

The problem boils down to deficiencies in the Canadian industry’s quality and yield measurements, said Gracey, as well as a lack of awareness among all parties of the connection between quality and yield.

One should not come at the expense of the other, he said.

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“We have known for at least the last four decades that it is possible to breed, raise, feed, and market animals that are of high quality and also high yield. Only when producers are paid fairly for both quality and yield will they respond with a better product. The cattle feeder cannot and should not be blamed for responding to a marketplace that sends strong signals about quality and faint beeps about yield.”

Where’s the beef?

While the grading system considers several factors, marbling is the key determinant for the top grades (Prime, AAA, AA and A). But the system, developed at the Lacombe Research Centre in 1992, also measures the amount of lean meat from a carcass. The top category is Canada 1, more commonly called Y1, which is given when the lean yield is 59 per cent or more. (Y3 is for 53 per cent or less while Y2 is for carcasses that fall in between.)

It’s when you look at both yield and grade that a much different story emerges, said Gracey.

In 1995, 67 per cent of carcasses in the Prime through A range were categorized Y1. In 2015, that number had fallen to just 41 per cent.

click image for larger view)
click image for larger view) photo: File

“There appears to be a conundrum here because the primary determinant of ‘quality’ within the Maturity 1 category is degree of marbling,” he said. “Marbling refers to the interspersion of fat as seen and evaluated on the cut surface of the LD (loin) muscle and, as such, should not have a measurable impact on yield.

“So why is yield declining while marbling increases? In order to achieve and ensure the desired level of marbling, the easiest thing to do is to feed cattle longer which leads to increased external fat.”

It’s not just that there’s a lot more trim on today’s super-big fat cattle — the notion that more marbling equals better beef is simply wrong, said Gracey.

“There is a great deal of literature that suggests that marbling may indeed have some influence upon flavour but has little, if any, influence on tenderness,” he said. “From a consumer perspective, quality is highly associated with tenderness.”

It’s not surprising that consumers and retailers don’t know about the yield issue, but producers are also “generally unaware of variations in yield and do not fully appreciate its importance.”

“The industry is used to, and seemingly happy with, working on averages,” said Gracey.

Fixing the system

There are several steps the industry can take to fix the problem, he said.

First, it should move to full instrument grading and also calculate yield on a percentage basis rather than grouping carcasses into three broad categories.

More importantly, grading data should be shared and widely available.

“Grading does occur within packing plants but that necessity does not, and ought not, confer ownership of the data upon the packing plant operator,” said Gracey, adding the Canadian Beef Grading Agency would be the logical choice to be a central repository for grading data.

And cow-calf producers, not just the last buyer and seller, should be able to easily find out how their cows graded.

“With national ID and traceability this is now possible and indeed was virtually promised as a benefit of the national ID program. The creation of BIXS (Beef InfoXchange System) now makes this possible.”

Cargill’s recent move to supply carcass data to the company now operating BIXS is a step in the right direction, he added.

But Gracey’s biggest recommendation is to overhaul a pricing system so that it rewards both yield and quality.

“At present the base price for cattle sold on the rail is usually a price bid for AA cattle with premiums for AAA and Prime carcasses and a discount for A grade carcasses,” noted Gracey. “Since quality is somewhat — if not totally — subjective, a premium or discount is appropriate and these premiums and discounts are determined in the marketplace.

“But yield is not a subjective carcass attribute. It is a measurable quantity and thus can be compensated for with an actual adjustment in the price, just as the price of milk is based on a standardized butterfat level with adjustments for higher or lower average butterfat.”

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