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‘Premium’ beef began with one man’s tough steak

No matter what breed, type or color of cattle you raise, there’s no escaping the fact that the Certified Angus Beef program changed how all beef cattle are promoted and marketed. As with most paradigm-changing events, it began with the strong convictions of a few individuals.

It started in 1975 when Harold Etling bit into a bad steak. Having raised Angus since 1944, the Marshallville, Ohio, businessman (now deceased) was disgusted with the lack of beef-quality predictability.

Etling envisioned a rigid contract and inspection program ensuring the integrity of consistent, high-quality beef. He took his idea to American Angus Association board member Fred Johnson (also deceased) of Summitville, Ohio.

Together with Kansas producer Robert Giess, Johnson brought Etling’s ideas to the full board that same year. After a few months of research and development, Mick Colvin, AAA regional manager, was brought in to carry CAB into the marketplace.

Key Points

A bad steak in 1975 spurred the vision of today’s CAB program.

Three breeders from Ohio and Kansas forever changed beef marketing.

Black hides, not just Angus genes, pull the premiums.

In 1976, USDA changed beef-quality grading standards, allowing beef with less marbling to qualify as USDA Choice. That move just strengthened AAA board resolve.

Bob VanStavern, an Ohio State University emeritus meat scientist, led development of the quality standards necessary for that consistent, positive beef-eating experience. The first pound of CAB was retailed in 1978.

“No” was the most common word Colvin heard, as CAB’s now-retired executive director tried to convince packers, restaurants, retail stores and even producers that the idea would fly. That fall, USDA abruptly halted the program, based on negative feedback from producers of other breeds and plant inspectors not wanting extra duties.

Intense work by Colvin, Johnson, C.K. Allen and others got the program reinstated six months later. By 1995, CAB sales passed 1 billion pounds. In 1997, sales reached 1 million pounds per working day. In June of 2007, monthly sales topped 56 million pounds.

Has CAB demand cooled?

Hardly! 2010 ended with 17% growth over the previous year. CAB President John Stika reports that sales October 2009-September 2010 were 777 million pounds — more than the program sold in its first 10 years of existence and 114 million pounds over the previous 12 months.

In the tight economy, you might think growth would strongly favor economy cuts. But it was largely balanced: strip steaks and tenderloins up 16%, end meats up 16.1%, ground product up 24.3% and value-added deli items up 34%.

Retail sales still accounted for 52% of total sales. Today, CAB has more than 14,000 licensees around the world.

At the farm level, CAB impact is hard to ignore. Registrations for purebred Angus cattle continue to grow. Today, more than 60% of the nation’s cow herd has an Angus influence.

Harpster is a Penn State University animal scientist and a beef cow-calf producer.

What qualifies as Certified Angus Beef

Certified Angus Beef, or CAB, carcass specifications have been enhanced over the years. In 2006, for instance, the yield grade cap was replaced with more specific limits on rib-eye area, carcass weight and external fat thickness. Currently, the 10 specs are:

1. Marbling must be modest or higher.

2. Medium or fine marbling texture

3. “A” (youngest) carcass maturity

4. 10- to 16-square-inch rib-eye area

5. Hot carcass weight of less than 1,000 pounds

6. External fat thickness of less than 1 inch

7. Superior muscling (to restrict dairy cattle influence)

8. Practically free of capillary ruptures (ensuring a visually appealing steak)

9. No dark-cutters (to ensure bright, visually appealing color)

10. No neck hump exceeding 2 inches (safeguarding against zebu-type cattle having more variability in tenderness),

The animal must be verified as at least 51% black-hided or enrolled in AngusSource, a USDA verification program for Angus-sired calves. The program documents source, group age and a minimum of 50% Angus genetics. A second-tier program called Gateway verifies source and group age only. Once calves are enrolled, they’re identified with an official tag as certified.

Black-hided loophole

A number of other breeds have infused “black genetics” into their purebreds. Consequently, resulting CAB beef may have little relation to the Angus breed. Proponents counter that in the final analysis, the high-quality eating experience is preserved regardless, as long as the 10 carcass criteria are met.

BLACK BULL? Not all that’s black is Angus. Simmental breeders, for example, have quickly shifted genetics to capitalize on black genes.

This article published in the May, 2011 edition of AMERICAN AGRICULTURIST.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2011.