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food labels

Safeguarding Consumers from Olive Oil Fraud

Olive oil is a staple in many American kitchens. But, this popular product has also been the focus of concerned consumers who want to understand and trust the quality of the oil they buy.

To help the entire industry—olive oil producers, bottlers and consumers—ensure that products are pure and authentic, USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) provides the Quality Monitoring Program (QMP).

Expertise + Training + Commitment = A Day in the Life of a USDA Process Verified Program Auditor

As an auditor for USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), I am one of a small group of highly-qualified individuals from across the country who audits companies that use our programs and services to add value to their products in the market place.  One of these programs is the USDA Process Verified Program, or USDA PVP for short.

For a PVP audit, I do a significant amount of preparation before I’m even on-site, pouring over the Quality Manual the company prepared as part of their application.  The Quality Manual – the starting point for any PVP – documents all of the process points, the scope of each, and the standard I am ensuring they will meet. To evaluate this effectively, I rely on my extensive training in International Organization for Standardization’s (ISO) quality management system requirements and audit principles, as well as training specific to the industry, processes, and points being audited.

Change Beyond the Plate

The following guest blog from a school and community nutrition services director in Louisville, Kentucky highlights how non-profit School Food FOCUS relies on USDA’s Process Verified Program (PVP) to help increase transparency and choice for school food purchases.  USDA’s objective, third-party auditing services focus on increasing transparency from farm to market by offering verification based on clearly defined, implemented, and transparent process points.

By Julia Bauscher, Director of School and Community Nutrition Services, Jefferson County Public Schools, Louisville, Kentucky

The first time School Food FOCUS brought together a group of school food directors like myself to talk about how we could improve the quality of chicken—the number one protein we serve to students—I was thrilled and a little daunted.

Schools across the country spend nearly $1 billion on chicken every year. That’s a lot of buying power. School Food FOCUS challenged us to think about the changes we can make to our food system if districts leveraged this buying power to create a demand for chicken that is better on the plate and for the environment.

USDA Process Verified Program: Transparency from Farm to Market

Product labeling is a contract of trust between consumers and producers.  This is especially true for the foods we eat and the companies that sell them.  The responsibility of regulating and monitoring food labels is shared between many federal agencies including the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and USDA, and we recognize that there must be transparency and accountability before there can be public trust and understanding of product labels.

While my own agency, USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), does not approve many product labels directly, we do provide a service where AMS auditors provide an objective, third-party verification on any food product that a company’s labeling claims are backed by plain language standards.  Transparency and accountability are the cornerstones of this service, and we are continuously working to improve both for all of our auditing programs, with our most recent efforts focusing on USDA’s Process Verified Program (PVP).

Organic 101: Understanding the "Made with Organic***" Label

This is the sixteenth installment of the Organic 101 series that explores different aspects of the USDA organic regulations.

Deciphering food labels and marketing claims can be a challenge for the average consumer.  Companies use production and handling claims as a way to differentiate their products in the marketplace. Organic is one label that most consumers are familiar with, but understanding what “organic” really means can help consumers make informed choices.

USDA certified organic products have strict production and labeling requirements.  The U.S. organic industry is regulated by the National Organic Program (NOP), part of USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service.  Certified organic products are produced without excluded methods such as genetic engineering or genetically modified organisms (GMOs).  The organic standards are designed to allow natural substances in organic farming while prohibiting synthetic substances.

Organic 101: Ensuring Organic Integrity through Inspections

This is the fifteenth installment of the Organic 101 series that explores different aspects of the USDA organic regulations.

USDA certified organic products are produced and sold around the world, many originating from over 17,700 organic operations right here in the United States. The USDA organic label assures consumers that products have been produced through approved methods and that prohibited substances, like synthetic pesticides, have not been used. I am often asked how the USDA verifies organic claims, and whether organic operations are inspected.

In order to sell, label, or represent products as organic in the United States, operations must be certified. The National Organic Program, part of USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, accredits private, foreign, and State entities called certifying agents to certify and inspect organic operations.

So how does this all work? First, the operation would apply for certification through a certifying agent. The certifier will ask for information including a history of substances applied to land during the previous three years, and an Organic System Plan describing the practices and substances to be used. The certifier reviews applications to verify that practices comply with USDA organic regulations, and then an inspector conducts an on-site inspection.

Quality You Can Trust

When you think of what really makes fruit and vegetables stand out it usually comes down to quality.  Determining quality – making sure your fresh food looks, smells, feels and tastes just the way you expect it to – is what USDA’s Quality Monitoring Program (QMP) does.

The program, run by the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) Specialty Crops Inspection Division, allows produce suppliers and others to have products inspected by USDA based on specific internal standards or U.S. grade standards.  As a neutral third-party, USDA evaluates various commodities through QMP – everything from olive oil to canned, frozen and fresh fruits and vegetables.

"USDA Tender" - A Cooperative Effort with the U.S. Beef Industry

Tenderness is one of the most significant factors affecting the overall consumer acceptance of beef cuts.  Although the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Beef Quality Grading program is a useful tool in predicting overall consumer acceptance of beef, other factors besides those assessed by the USDA Quality Grading System affect beef tenderness.  In other words, beef that may not grade to the highest USDA Quality Grade (USDA Select or Choice vs. USDA Prime) may in fact be rated just as tender by consumers.  Similarly, certain cuts of beef, no matter how high their USDA Quality Grade, may not be as tender for some consumers.

To address these issues and provide consumers with a more useful purchasing tool, USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) worked with academia and industry to develop an accurate system to determine when consumers perceive beef cuts to be either tender or very tender.  Based on an objective scale, the system ensures that specific beef cuts consistently meet these established thresholds.  Thanks to the collaborative efforts between AMS and these groups, approved beef processors can now market products as USDA-Certified Tender or Very Tender through product labeling, advertisements, and promotions.

Organic 101: Five Steps to Organic Certification

This is the eighth installment of the Organic 101 series that explores different aspects of the USDA organic regulations.

The USDA organic label is backed by a certification system that verifies farmers or handling facilities located anywhere in the world comply with the USDA Organic Regulations. Certification entails five steps:

Organic 101: The Lifecycle of Organic Food Production

This is the fifth installment of the Organic 101 series that explores different aspects of the USDA organic regulations.

Through defined farming practices, organic principles promote ecological balance, foster the cycling of resources, and conserve biodiversity. To understand what that means when it comes to the label on your food, those principles require some more explanation.

Let’s take a closer look at a snapshot of sustainable food production, using the lifecycle of organic cheddar to get a fuller picture.