Beef Cattle Color Discrimination

Long ago, human subgroups migrated then evolved isolated in various regions of planet Earth.  Some of the readily observable results of those prehistoric migrations are people of different skin colors, speaking different languages, having many different customs/societal norms, being of varying sizes and displaying characteristic subgroup facial features.  As trade and travel continued increasing over long periods of time, evolved human subgroups have often found themselves living in close proximity to other evolved subgroups.  Understandably, factors such as appearances, spoken language communication difficulties and conflicting beliefs caused many people to  “stick to their own kind;” while discriminating against  others from unfamiliar backgrounds.  All of human history has been dictated by economic considerations, therefore it was the need to communicate effectively while making business deals that well could have led to the worldwide dominance of a few widely distributed languages.  After overall understanding was increased by better spoken communication, the logical need for religious freedom became more widely accepted.  Individual cultural customs were exposed in mixed societies; where they either became mainstream over time or were relegated to become niche practices; either way their fate was based upon perceived overall economical usefulness.  With observable differences out of the way, size, facial features and skin color differences remained as predominate discriminatory factors.  It took a combination of laws, educational efforts and time (old ones had to pas-on)to eradicate “judging a book by its cover” discrimination from being a 1st world society common practice.

Given the above history, why are an ever increasing number of today’s Americans preferring to  consume beef originating from black hided “Angus” cattle?  Holstein cattle are the dominate dairy breed around the world, but they display measurably higher milk production, they don’t brand milk with their breed name while genetics from other cattle breeds have been incorporated into their name bearing products and Holstein’s coats are of a nondescript random bicolored appearance.  Does the tremendous long-term success of the Black Angus marketing program speak volumes about the shallow and easily led nature of us mere mortals?  As evidence that this black cattle phenomenon is solely color based: The Red Angus and very closely related Murray Grey beef cattle breeds both have production and eating quality attributes that can be virtually the same as Black Angus.  Murray Greys were developed by crossing an Aberdeen Black Angus bull to a White Shorthorn cow.  Their progeny continued to display a solid light colored coat; even after continuously being bred back to Black Angus.  As it is with the solid white Hereford breed head, solid light hair color is a dominate genetic trait of the Murray Grey cattle breed.  Still, both Red Angus and Murray Grey are excluded from Angus influence certification programs due to a randomly established hide coloration standard.  To add insult to injury, many different black hided European beef cattle breeds do indeed qualify phenotypically to have their resulting carcasses considered for  Angus programs final certification.  “Cattle eligible for certification in Angus influence beef programs based on phenotype (appearance) will have a main body that is solid black, with no other color behind the shoulder, above the flanks, or breaking the midline behind the shoulders, excluding the tail.  Angus influence cattle may be either horned or polled.  Carcasses of certified live animal which display certain non-Angus characteristics e.g. dairy conformation, Holsteins, Brahman humps) will be excluded as specified in the carcass specification’s approved programs.”  Red Angus, Black Angus and Murray Grey cattle are all naturally polled (not horned), but likely since horning is a dominate genetic trait it was allowed in the Angus influence specifications.  An exception to solid black main body hair coat is sun-bleached hair along a beef animal’s loins.  Another avenue open to Angus influence certification is source verified programs where the actual genetics (50% or higher “Angus” genetics) of beef cattle are verified by production records.  The source verified option could work to get some of the recessive trait Red Angus calves, that periodically pop up, into Angus influence certification programs.  It is my understanding that live animal certification for GLA programs is based either on phenotype or genotype, but not both.

How did modern American society arrive at such beef beliefs?  I think the foundation for beef cattle color discrimination was laid all the way back when American farmers began using their abundant grain resources to finish-feed young range cattle prior to marketing them.  High-energy grain finishing added both eye-appeal and desirable palatability characteristics (flavor, tenderness and juiciness) to the resulting fresh meat cuts.  As a direct result of the wide adoption of that practice, U.S. grain-fed/finished retail beef became the “toast of the town” all around the world.  As time went on, beef cattle producers (especially those outside the grain-belt) began looking for ways to increase their bottom line profits.  High eating quality medium frame score beef is more expensive to produce than forage feeding large-breeds of cattle’s offspring, and then harvesting the latter growthy calves at the top of their growth curve.  About he only economic plusses for grain-finishing are that such cattle tie up beef production range/pasture facilities for a shorter period of time, more youthful cattle carcasses correlate well with tenderness and worldwide ruminant greenhouse gas emissions are reduced by the shorter periods of time that grain-finished market cattle are alive.  Beginning in the 1960’s, the above mentioned more economical beef production considerations spawned the widespread crossbreeding of America’s then predominately British breed beef cattle herds to larger Continental/Exotic European cattle breeds.  Many of the Continental breeds had been developed for the dual-purpose of  draft power and lower quality (sometimes at the end of productive work life, salvage value) meat production.  As a consequence of that crossbreeding, a lot of British breed cows, and especially heifers, suffered greatly during the first wave of America’s “bigger is better” beef production phase; which caused a good bit of economic loss.  However, beef production increases were indeed realized though the heterosis/hybrid-vigor phenomenon, and as  promised such crossbred progeny easily achieved customary market weights on less expensive low energy feedstuffs.  If you care to learn more about the “free lunch” benefits of crossbreeding cattle (Click Here). The bigger is better beef carcasses did indeed yield considerably leaner beef; so some of the end-product palatability characteristics suffered substantially.  At that point in time a need had developed for beef industry funding of medical research to create the “animal fat is bad” mantra.  Most of the rest of the world was getting along just fine while eating leaner beef; so it was thought that Americans could unlearn their tasty beef preference.  The eventual upshot of the persistent fat is bad campaign was that U.S. beef per capita consumption started declining in 1977 and continued to decline during most years ever since.  To be fair, some of that decline is also due to beef’s expense compared to other mainstream animal protein sources.

Back in 1978 Herford cattle were the most prevalent beef breed worldwide.  That same year The American Angus Association seized the moment and implemented the G-1 carcass specification for their Certified Angus Beef (CAB) brand.  The simple genius behind their plan was to continue providing the type of retail grade beef that Americans had grown accustomed to.  And not too long thereafter, the Sterling Silver G-2  carcass specification was started to provide a second old-school beef brand.  The G-2 carcass specification reads essentially the same as the G-1, except in the former spec live animal phenotype is left out.  Throughout the 1980’s it was widely accepted that Sterling Silver beef was equivalent to CAB.  But, perceptions began changing after the 1991 National Beef Audit indicated that black hided cattle were yielding a higher percentage of more marbled beef carcasses.  In hind-sight, that observation may well have been due to the classic Hereford – Black Angus cross that consistently results in white headed – black bodied beef cattle.  Still, the end result from that report was that 51% black, or more black, feeder cattle began bringing a price premium over other colored calves (including even Red Angus and Murray Grey influence cattle).  The price difference then caused some pure-bred Continental breeders to begin selecting for black offspring; which is easy to do because black hair color is normally a dominate genetc trait.  Packers only pay a high Quality – decent Yield carcass premium for carcasses that actually grade-out as-specified.  Calf feeders don’t have that luxury; so feeders sometimes pay a black feeder calf premium then hope for the best.

Ever so slowly, the “fat is bad” tale became discredited.  The current accepted theory is that one’s risk of clogging up their arteries is  largely due to their particular genetic makeup and activity levels.  And with that newer development, some of the demand pendulum swung “past-prime” and all the way into Wagyu (Wagyu means cattle in Japanese) territory.  No cattle were indigenous to the island of Japan, Wagyu were developed from the crossing of British beef and European Dairy breeds.  Anyhow at that time, both the G-1 & G-2 beef carcass specifications stood ready to further financially benefit from the bet they had made long ago: that most consumers would continue to buy what they enjoy eating.  In hindsight, it now appears that the words Sterling Silver Beef didn’t resonate nearly as well with people as the words Certified Angus Beef did.  It was at that point that the American Angus Association became well positioned to strongly advance the sale of Black Angus bulls.  Sadly, just as breeding beef animals based solely on coat color makes little sense, continuously breeding back to one beef breed is also an anti-intellectual and non-prudent way of conducting business (see heterosis/hybrid vigor).

Due to a series of advantageous happenings the Black Angus train continued to gain steam, and everyone and their brother was looking to hop on.  First came dozens of lower quality fresh cut G-specifications.  Then the next wave of Angus marketing came when all different quality levels of black hided cattle beef began being made into further processed precooked convenience items.  Both of those developments were to the chagrin of the original CAB folks, but it does further the misconception of “Angus” superiority.  At last check the number of G- specifications has past the 150 mark; with the majority of them having the word Angus in their branded product name.  All Angus specifications follow the same live animal qualification rules, but final carcass certification is based upon whatever is specified by the applicant (the group paying the USDA’s AMS to certify their branded products).


In summary:

Cattle color discrimination makes little sense.

It greatly reduces potential economic production benefits made possible by       controlled crossbreeding (anti-sustainable agriculture issue).

Encourages consumers to think in simplistic, non-critical terms.

However, if your on the money making side of successful beef marketing programs, more power to you.


My thoughts about CAB’s 10 carcass specifications:

The Modest or higher degree of marbling is a good call; in order to feed into America’s high quality beef eating heritage.

Medium or fine textured marbling is a somewhat too subjective to call a carcass in or out on.  Company taggers would likely request that carcasses judged to be displaying coarse textured marbling be re-graded up to several times, in order to get different Grader’s opinions about what is too coarse.

A – (youngest maturity group) physiological maturity is the norm in U.S. market beef carcasses as a tenderness indicating factor; so the bar isn’t raised much by this standard.

10 to 16 square inch rib-eye area:  10 square inches is too small and 16 square inches is too big for fabricating potion control foodservice cuts.  Many grocery store customers do like big steaks, but those same people often cannot afford steaks cut to thickness which are conducive to high-heat cooking; to a medium rare state.

A 1050 pound carcass weight would come from about a 1725 pound live beef animal and the normal rib-eye size for that carcass weight is 16.1 square inches.  See specification number 4.

Less than 1 inch fat thickness is a Yield Grade issue and does not affect the eating quality of beef carcass lean.  Today, wholesale beef cuts are routinely trimmed to specified fat cover thickness; before being packaged and sold as boxed beef.

Superior muscling translates into plump looking, as opposed to angular shaped, cross-cut rib-eyes.  Dairy-beef rib-eyes are normally comparatively long and somewhat pie-shaped.

A practically free of capillary rupture rule pertains to all beef carcasses that are offered for official Quality grading.

No dark-cutters is a good eye-appeal call for fresh beef retail sales.  However, the dark-cutting condition does not affect the eating quality of restaurant cooked steaks (where raw eye-appeal is not a selling point factor) and the higher pH level of dark-cutters can actually help enhance cooked product moisture retention.

No neck hump exceeding 2 inches is a good call for excluding some Brahman breed influence cattle, of retail market age, because they are known to often be comparatively less tender.  Brahman influence cattle also have a lower genetic propensity to marble; so they would be less likely to grade high enough to meet either the G-1 or G-2 carcass specifications.


Beef carcass certification process outline:

If requested, slaughtered animals are evaluated on the kill-floor for either phenotypic or genetic certification program specifications.  If qualifications are met an edible ink stamp is placed on the skinned-out rump.  In large harvest plants there are camera monitors in the Grader’s office; so they can periodically check on rump stamp applications.

Fully chilled beef carcasses are offered for official grading on a chain driven rail; as is normal.

Graded carcasses are evaluated by plant employees (taggers) for meeting certification specifications.  Carcasses believed to qualify for certification are stamped by taggers with the applicable specification stamp (example G-1).

A second, down-line, USDA grader considers carcasses stamped for final carcass certification, and if agreeable said carcasses are stamped over the specification stamp with an Accepted As Specified stamp.

Written by George Wolfer

George Wolfer

Been associated with the meat industry pretty much since starting at a Vocational High school Meat Processing program in 1974. Like to learn and teach interesting and worthwhile livestock production, meat processing and marketing practices.

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