AgDM newsletter article, April 2003
by Charles Hurburgh, Jr., Chair, Ag Quality Initiative, and professor of agricultural engineering
(First in a series of two)
Quality management systems, with their associated statistical process controls and product tracking, are not new to world industry, but the concept is a radical departure from the generic commodity mindset that has typified agriculture. Trading undifferentiated commodities at constantly eroding margins provides little incentive for quality beyond that needed for minimal acceptance. However, a number of powerful and wide-ranging forces are converging to create a climate of change.
Some attributes cannot be measured by either visual inspection (e.g., natural beef) or by chemical analysis (e.g., BST in milk). In other cases, measurement is possible but cost prohibitive. For some consumers it is the process (how it was produced or by whom) that creates value (i.e., organic, animal welfare practices, locally grown) not the grade. Process control and more importantly source verification is necessary to capture the value of the trait. Finally, increased world security concerns are causing more scrutiny of all products intended for food - either commodity or specialty.
What is Source Verification?
Source verification is the ability to trace products from their initial components (for example, from seed) through a production and distribution system to the end user. Other terms have been used for source verification - trace-ability, product tracking, process verification and others. Source verification automatically applies to identity-preserved products - those that are physically isolated throughout the market - but is also increasingly used for documentation in bulk commodity markets as well. Some examples of soybean products that are or could be source verified are:
Source verification is a process. Testing for specific traits and special handling are part, but not all of the process. Source verification requires a documentation chain from start to finish, in addition to whatever actual confirmation testing can be done. Source verification functions even when testing is not possible, or when the value of the product is in consumer perception rather than physical attributes. As long as the integrity of the documentation is maintained, the source verification and protection will be intact.
Quality Management Systems
Source verification requires a certified (third- party audited) quality management system (QMS). Quality management systems are formalized procedures for requiring discipline and reproducibility in a production process. Discipline and documentation have not been mainstays of traditionally independent minded agriculture. Quality management systems force operators to document what and how processes are done, then prove though records and audit that the process, however described, is consistent. QMS do not require specific or high quality standards, just that desired standards are met. QMS are also a convenient framework under which to introduce environmental and/or safety standards.
The worldwide framework for quality management systems has been the ISO 9000 series of standards. Many manufacturing industries have customized a “front end” for the ISO standards to make them more user friendly for specific situations. This is also happening in agriculture, as in for example the American Institute of Baking Quality Systems Evaluation (QSE) program for flourmills and bakeries. Custom programs can also incorporate other elements such as food safety or environmental protection not addressed by ISO 9000. The USDA is considering starting a process certification similar to but not totally equivalent to ISO 9000 (See www.usda.gov/gipsa.).
There are strong reasons for creating a recognized general format for quality management systems.
For the producer and the user alike, quality management systems have immediate benefits:
For users, buying from QMS producers/handlers is an automatic method of pre-delivery tracking. The producer and first handler must be involved in source verification if any meaningful tracking and/or quality improvements are to be made.
Next Issue: Quality Management Systems for Grain Markets