MEAT PROCESSORS EARN USDA RECOGNITION

WASHINGTON -- In this age of safety-minded, value-sensitive shoppers, more manufacturers are seeking to enhance the appeal of their products by implementing a system of government-approved quality controls.One such path open to processors leads to accreditation through the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Process Verified Program, which is designed to make U.S. livestock and meat more competitive

WASHINGTON -- In this age of safety-minded, value-sensitive shoppers, more manufacturers are seeking to enhance the appeal of their products by implementing a system of government-approved quality controls.

One such path open to processors leads to accreditation through the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Process Verified Program, which is designed to make U.S. livestock and meat more competitive on the world market by removing production variables that can impact the caliber of the end product.

USDA officials said the quality management system has been evolving over the past four years and is based on The International Organization for Standardization's ISO 9000 quality management and quality assurance standards. Participating companies are audited by the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service using a 20-point itemized checklist that incorporates all aspects of production.

Mark Bradley, quality manager for the meat grading and certification branch of the USDA, said the department is aggressively contacting industry groups to alert them of the availability and importance of the program, but that it is ultimately up to the individual companies to make the commitment.

"Many companies will show initial interest," said Bradley. "But then let the process slide to the back burner when they realize how much the accreditation process entails."

But, some companies see the process as a valuable marketing tool. Premium Standard Farms, Kansas City, Mo., became the first pork producer/processor to implement the stringent quality assurance controls, which earned it "Process Verified" status from the USDA.

Premium Standard's quality assurance blueprint took into account all aspects of the operation, including food safety, feed manufacturing, environmental stewardship and worker safety.

Officials said the process included the auditing of staff on all levels from laboratory technicians to veterinarians to the accounting department. The standards are maintained daily by certified in-house staff members and through bi-annual audits by the USDA.

Officials at Premium Standard believe the verification status is well worth the effort.

"We do a lot of exporting," said Charlie Arnot, vice president for communications and public affairs at Premium Standard Farms. "And quality and food safety have always been a top priority. This was a natural and logical step for us to take."

Likewise, PM Beef Holdings, a beef packer/processor headquartered in Richmond, Va., has become the first in the beef industry to achieve this distinction, according to a spokesperson for the company.

Premium Standard, meanwhile, is now focusing on getting this message of quality assurance to its customers.

"One of the challenges will be communicating to consumers exactly what the program means and why it is important," he continued.

The pork company will print its verification status on shipping boxes and packaging labels and is working with retailers and the USDA to develop educational means of informing consumers.

"We believe [the Process Verified Program] will help build worldwide value for the U.S. meat industry," said Dr. Enrique Figueroa, the agricultural marketing service administrator who oversees the Program for the USDA. "We look forward to continuing to assist the industry in marketing high quality meat products."