A close look at Certified Angus Beef

A close look at Certified Angus Beef
by Bonnie Warnyca - 10, 2011

Without question, the most recognized beef brand in North America is the American-based Certified Angus Beef (CAB) program which began in Ohio some 33 years ago. Over the years, it has grown to more than 800 million lbs. of beef to be sold this year, which translates into about 3.5 million head of Black Angus cattle.

From the beginning, CAB was designed to be funded by the packer and not the producer.

“We don’t own any cattle and we don’t own any beef,” says Steve Suther, Director, Industry Information for the CAB program. “We are a non-profit subsidiary of the American Angus Association and our sole purpose is to add more value to Angus cattle.”

Initially, the Association invested seed money to get the CAB program kick started, but that was paid back early on and since then it has been strictly supported by the packers, including those in Canada since 2000.

In the beginning, a couple of small packers signed on to the program but within a few years, one of the packer giants, National Beef, began marketing CAB and the rest is history.

Today, there are 30 packing plants that market CAB with twice that many CAB licensed feedlots scattered around the U.S. While a producer can feed their cattle anywhere, the CAB feedlots have been instrumental in helping to build a rich data base to decipher which genetic and feeding combinations rise to the top. The number of producers that retain ownership throughout the feeding process has grown steadily.

There are about 12,000 licensed restaurants in the States that serve CAB and more than double that number which are not registered in the program but use CAB. Add to this another 3,000 licensed retailers and restaurants around the world including Canada. Licensed CAB restaurants and retailers are enrolled in a reporting system in order to track the product in and product sold.

The CAB program is not in the commodity business but in the value-added business. The CAB demographic is the over $50,000 income household and even with a slump in the U.S. economy, the demand for Choice beef cuts has increased by 20% with the demand for CAB doubling.

“Much of the 2010 growth came from the export market opportunities and also a return of restaurant visitors,” suggests Suther.

“Because of our commitment to delivering a good product every time, there has been a huge element of trust built between CAB and the consumer over the years. When times are tough, consumers will buy a product they can count on to deliver their taste expectations.”

Building a Brand
While some Canadian brands have struggled with supply and demand or demand and supply, Suther says that the success behind CAB has come from developing the criteria and never wavering.

The ten carcass specifications include modest or higher marbling, medium or fine marbling texture, “A” maturity for each, lean and skeletal characteristics, 10 to 16 inch ribeye area, less than 1,000 lb. hot carcass weight, less than 1 inch fat thickness, superior muscling (eliminates dairy influence), practically free of capillary rupture, no dark cutters and no neck hump exceeding 2 inches.

“There are roughly 15 million head of cattle that are screened each year to see if they fit the ten carcass specifications,” Suther tells us.

“Ninety percent of the eligible (black) cattle that fail (76% of them still fail) do so because they lack sufficient marbling to be upper Choice (or even upper AAA).”

Only six or seven years ago, less than 15 percent of all Angus cattle screened were able to meet the carcass specifications for CAB. Today, that number has jumped to 24 percent.

While 40 percent of the beef served in Canadian restaurants under the CAB banner comes from the U.S., Suther hopes that in the future, the program will include more Canadian Angus beef as ranchers find financial incentives.

Back at CAB headquarters in Wooster, Ohio, besides scouring the globe for the latest research in favour of beef, promoting the brand through conventional and social media, investigating new retailers and restaurant applications, the more than 100 CAB staff also spends part of their time training CAB member restaurants and retailers. CAB has their own restaurant where wait staff and chefs are trained to answer customer’s questions. Cooking methods and recipes are rehearsed to enable the cooks to offer the best possible eating experience from the higher quality beef product.

Part of the CAB program strategy is to build the demand not just for those cattle that qualify for CAB, but for higher quality beef, period.

“What we try to do is raise the tide for every producer that wants to focus on high quality,” says Suther. “If the animals they raise don’t have a black hide but can go prime or upper triple A, there are brands out there that will take the cattle and there is usually a premium attached.”

It takes cooperation from the cow/calf producer, feeder and packer to share information and ownership to constantly improve the quality of each and every beef carcass.

Suther points to a small feeding operation in Missouri that last year had 535 head enrolled in the CAB program as an example of how genetic improvement and specific feed management can pay off.

He says, “Ninety percent of these cattle went into the CAB program or CAB Prime capturing roughly $150 per head more than Select cattle that sold at the same time.”

“This program continues to thrive and prosper because our customers receive a consistent quality beef product. You can’t build a brand by saying the beef was grass fed or corn fed, or that it is even Angus. You build a brand by first developing the carcass specifications that best meet the consumer’s expectations of just how good beef should taste. A brand is a promise and you build your reputation on that.”

Future growth for CAB is in exporting more products to Mexico, the Caribbean, the Middle East and the Pacific Rim, including China. As cattle premiums make their way to Canadian Angus ranchers, CAB sees more opportunity for Canada to become self-sufficient in supplying product for customers like Loblaw, M & M Meat Shops and Earl’s to name a few. Canadian-produced CAB has already played a key role in exports to Mexico and the Pacific Rim.