What Are USDA Standards? Keeping Manufacturers In Line

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pack fresh meat with USDA choice label

As a federal government agency, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) implements policies and regulations related to farming, ranching, forestry, food quality, and nutrition in the United States. As part of this process, this organization sets food safety standards and inspects certain facilities to ensure they meet USDA food safety compliance requirements.

In this post, we answer the question, “What are USDA standards?” We also cover the industries that must follow standards set by the USDA, what USDA inspectors look for during facility inspections, and the benefits of meeting USDA standards for your food business.

What Is the Role of the USDA in Food Safety?

Understanding USDA specifications starts with understanding the role of the USDA in food safety. In addition to creating guidelines that help Americans eat nutritious diets, the USDA also does the following:

  • Ensures safe food production for farmers
  • Protects the food supply from contamination
  • Supports producers and distributors of the food supply
  • Regulates agricultural marketing
  • Ensures that food products are properly prepared, labeled, and packaged
  • Regulates and standardizes food production processes

Which Food Items Are Inspected By the USDA?

The USDA regulates and inspects the following foods:

  • Meat
  • Poultry
  • Eggs
  • Processed egg products

On the other hand, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates many categories of food products in the United States, including dairy, produce, dietary supplements, food additives, and infant formula.

The Role of the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS)

The Food Safety and Inspection Service is an agency within the USDA that inspects all aspects of meat production operations, from slaughter facilities to packaging plants. FSIS inspections ensure that the meat is nutritious, free of dangerous pathogens and foreign substances, and produced in compliance with United States Department of Agriculture criteria.

The FSIS conducts inspections of the following facilities that handle meat, poultry, and eggs:

  • Slaughterhouses
  • Cutting plants
  • Processing plants
  • Laboratories
  • Warehouses
  • Retail businesses
  • Restaurants

Meat and Poultry Inspection

men inspecting chicken in poultry farm

USDA inspectors examine meat and poultry products sold across state lines to make sure they meet USDA quality guidelines and are safe for human consumption. Specifically, meat inspectors do the following:

  • Inspect animals in-plant before and after slaughter to make sure they are free of disease
  • Make sure that livestock handling and slaughter use humane methods
  • Ensure that facilities follow their written Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP), sanitation, and processing plans to prevent poor food safety practices.
  • Reduce the occurrence and number of pathogens on meat products and the incidence of foodborne illness from consuming these products
  • Conduct regulatory oversight activities in matters relating to other areas of consumer protection, such as misbranding

Egg Products Grading

The USDA also has voluntary services that agricultural manufacturers may choose to pay for. One of these is shell egg grading. Grading labels certify that eggs have met USDA regulations and standards for sanitation and quality. USDA grade marks come in the following three categories:

  • Grade AA: The freshest and highest quality eggs
  • Grade A: Very high-quality eggs
  • Grade B: Lower-quality eggs often used for baking or breaking stock (liquid eggs)

In addition, manufacturers can use the “Certified Cage Free” label for eggs that the USDA has graded and certified as coming from cage-free flocks.

USDA Standards in Food Processing

Now that you know what the USDA does, what are the USDA standards in food processing? The USDA requires businesses and facilities that handle meat, poultry, eggs, and egg products to apply for a Grant of Inspection from the FSIS. Businesses operating under this Grant of Inspection must meet certain rules and regulations that depend on their specific industry and manufacturing process.

USDA food processing standards and policies address the following:

  • Implementing a hazard analysis and critical control points (HACCP) plan
  • Implementing and maintaining a sanitation plan, including sanitary operations, employee hygiene, tagging unsanitary equipment, etc.
  • Establishing recall procedures to stop the distribution of contaminated food
  • Applying for label approval

Sanitation and Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs)

Good manufacturing practices provide general guidelines that help ensure products are safe, consistent, and in line with quality control standards. In food processing, GMPs cover all aspects of production, from raw materials to manufacturing facilities to the personal hygiene of employees. A GMP audit verifies that your products and processes meet GMP standards.

Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP)

workers wearing proper uniform at slaughterhouse

HACCP plans are internationally recognized food safety management systems designed to identify, address, and prevent hazards in food processing. Basic plans cover the following common requirements:

  • Standard operating procedures for sanitation
  • Proper layout of food operations, including the availability of handwashing facilities, easy-to-clean surfaces, and separate production lines to prevent cross-contamination
  • Proper HVAC and water controls
  • Staff training on food hygiene protocols
  • Effective pest management programs
  • Adequate waste management solutions

Critical control points (CCP) identify steps in the manufacturing process where you can prevent, eliminate, or reduce hazards to an acceptable level. Common food processing CCPs include:

  • Thermal processing at specific temperatures for specific times
  • Refrigerating foods below a certain temperature to stop pathogens from multiplying
  • Acidifying foods to prevent toxin formation
  • Testing ingredients for chemical residues
  • Testing products for metal contaminants

Labeling Requirements

The USDA inspection process also ensures that all food is properly labeled and that those labels are accurate and truthful. When it comes to meat products, a USDA stamp indicates that the agency has inspected the food and that it meets certain safety standards. If you don’t see this stamp, the product may be unsafe for consumption.

In addition, the USDA has policies surrounding the following types of labels and claims:

  • Natural foods
  • Voluntary food labels (such as shell egg grading, meat quality grading, and organic claims)
  • Animal production claims and hormone labeling (such as “raised without added hormones”)
  • Religious-exempt products (such as kosher or halal)

Grading and Quality Standards

In addition to shell egg grading, agricultural manufacturers can also choose to participate in other quality grading and certification programs.

For example, meat producers may ask the USDA for voluntary labels for their meat products. The most common meat quality labels are the following:

  • USDA Prime: This beef comes from young, well-fed cattle. It has abundant marbling and is generally sold in hotels and restaurants.
  • USDA Choice: This beef is high quality, but has less abundant marbling. Depending on the cut, it may work better for grilling, roasting, braising, or simmering.
  • USDA Select: This beef is leaner than meat in the other categories, which means it may be less juicy and less flavorful.

Another voluntary certification is for organic foods. To bear the organic label, the product must meet several USDA compliance requirements involving soil quality, animal living conditions, pest control, resource cycling, and additive usage.

Benefits of Meeting USDA Standards

The importance of food safety can’t be underestimated. Meeting the USDA standards shows your commitment to producing safe, quality food. It also enables your facility to comply with applicable industry rules and regulations.

Following USDA standards, GMPs, and your HACCP can help your company avoid expensive recalls, reinspection runs, or damage to your reputation. While inspections can raise the price of food, the alternative is far too costly for everyone.

Now that we’ve answered, “What are USDA standards?” let TDI Packsys help you meet your food safety goals with our state-of-the-art inspection systems. Check out our blog on why x-ray food inspection is critically important for food safety, and feel free to contact us if you have any questions.

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