He said studies show "the odds of having an undesirable eating experience" is 1 in 18 for prime beef, 1 in 9 for choice cuts, 1 in 4 for select cuts, and more than 1 out of 2 for standard cuts.
People get what they pay for as far as steaks are concerned, he said. If they pay $2.99 a pound for low-grade quality, it's going to be a tougher, less tasty piece of meat than a prime cut three times as expensive.
Smith said cattlemen must continue to concentrate on improving the quality of beef. Among other things, that means changing the way things are done in the slaughterhouse.
"Shoppers want beef free from bacteria and chemical residue," said Smith, who predicts the next decade will bring an upturn to the industry.
In his lifetime the amount of "violative residues" found in beef - including hormones, pesticides and chemicals - has dropped from 4.31 percent to 0.18 percent, he said.
Six months ago, the industry began using new techniques to eliminate bacteria from beef, including removing the hair from the hide with a product similar to Nair, which women use on their legs instead of shaving. The carcasses are then sprayed down with 74-degree centigrade water or a weak vinegar solution.
"That will kill 'em," he said, speaking of the bacteria.
When those steps are taken Smith said the odds of finding three kinds of bad bacteria, including E coli, on the outside of a carcass drop from 1 in 500 to 1 in 5 million.
Making beef tender is one of the toughest challenges facing cattlemen, Smith said.
"The goal was to reduce toughness of beef by 50 percent by 1997,'' Smith said. "We didn't make it, but we're headed there."
Smith said research has shown that high voltage electrical stimulation of meat makes it more tender. As a result, the industry is now applying shocks to carcasses at the processing plant, he said.
Smith said the industry has also found a way to extend the shelf life of beef. That's both a boon to U.S. retailers and a selling point to overseas markets. Cattlemen have found that giving cattle vitamin E keeps the meat fresh longer and produces no ill effects.
"In ground beef alone, this extends the shelf life by 10 hours," he said. "That means retailers have a few more hours to sell a cut at full price."