"Don't tell me – show me" is an old expression that went on to make Missouri the Show-Me state. Today, you can apply that saying to the pork industry, as consumers have grown increasingly skeptical of food product claims.

Whether food quality and safety are guaranteed or implied, consumers' are demanding it from your product. Two solutions to assist you come in the form of USDA's product certification and production process verification programs, which provide proof for product claims.

Whether you are trying to fill a niche market for antibiotic-free pork, or to capture more value with a highly marbled cut, or a product with a certain color score, these programs prove that you're doing what you say.

On the surface, it's hard to pinpoint the difference between certified and verified pork programs, but the terminology is important, and USDA uses the following:

  • Product certification examines and certifies the end product, ensuring that it meets whatever standards have been set.
  • Process verification examines the production and processing methods used to raise the hog and create the product. However, those processes may or may not be apparent in the end product
    While those are USDA's definitions, that doesn't mean terminology in the industry has been uniform.

Certification and verification are used almost interchangeably. For example, Minnesota Certified Pork (or MNCEP as it's known) is actually closer to a process-verified program than a certified program, using USDA's terminology.

USDA has process-verified programs as well as certification guidelines for producers. Today, there are two pork operations that have developed a USDA process-verified pork program – Premium Standard Farms, Kansas City, Mo., and Farmland, Kansas City, Mo.

USDA's role is auditor. The producer, company or cooperative determines its own set of production criteria and then USDA confirms that the processes actually occur on the farm, says Mark Bradley, director of quality systems operations for USDA's Agriculture Marketing Service.

Product certification means USDA examines the end product – such as evaluating cuts, grades or yields, says Bradley. One such example is ensuring that product labeled Certified Angus Beef came from an animal with a 51 percent black hide.

Prairie Grove Farm, DeKalb, Ill., is an example of a certification program. USDAcertifies the Prairie Grove product for color score, fat trim, pH and blood splash requirements.

Product certification gives producers a degree of freedom not seen in process-verified programs. Since the final product is what's certified, you are free to use whatever production and management practices you chose, as long as the end product meets final specifications.

There also is much variation in what traits and qualities are certified. For example, packers certify hog carcasses for the Berkshire Gold and 100 Percent Berkshire programs. To meet the certification requirements Steve Price, chief executive officer of Berkshire Meat Products, certifies that the animals carry at least 50 percent Berkshire genetics for the Gold program or a pedigree must be presented to the packer. In addition, the meat must have a color score of two or above on the Japanese color scale, and a marbling score of three or above on the National Pork Producers Council scale.

Certification programs also let you hedge your bets to a degree, because you can place a portion of your production in the program. With a process-verification program, the investment in time and money require a stronger commitment.

Initial investments tend to be much less for certified product than for a process-verified program. Establishing the program also may come sooner with a certification plan.
The export market is a place where a process-verification program gives you an advantage, says Collette Schultz Kaster, PSF's vice president of food safety and technology. It ensures that you will have the information that exporters demand. The product also can carry USDA's process-verification logo and terminology. The product label can carry the logo as long as it includes bullet points explaining which processes were verified, says Bradley.

"Process verification is an option for producers who traditionally have not been able to recover value of superior production methods," says Bradley. "It also lets your customers select attributes they're willing to pay more for."
Schultz Kaster says it's unclear what direction these programs will take concerning independent producers. However, she says some packers may require similar types of process-verified programs in the future.

"A main benefit is that it provides a third-party audit verifying that what we've told customers about our production is true," says Schultz Kaster.

To develop the PSF program, swine nutritionists, veterinarians, geneticists and others involved in production provided input, says Schultz Kaster.

Swine practitioners, in particular, are stepping up to the challenge of developing certification and verification programs. Jim McKean, a veterinarian at Iowa State University, says there are three primary roles a swine practitioner can play in developing a program.

"They can understand the possibilities of what can and cannot be certified; they can be helpful in setting up criteria once the product market has been identified; and they are a logical group to do the auditing and reporting to a certifying body," says McKean.

Not all producers will be well suited to a process-verified program. There are certain steps to take and qualities you must have before you should even consider the idea.

"You have to do the market research and determine whether you can, and are willing to, fill a market need. You also need to determine whether you can do it in a manner that will provide a return on your investment," says McKean. "To do so you must work with the people you are marketing to– your immediate and direct customer."

Another trait that is vital to making a verification system work is meticulous recordkeeping. "The rule of thumb is if it's not recorded, it didn't happen," says McKean.

A process-verification program will guarantee that you have implemented specific production practices, but it doesn't necessarily change the characteristics of your product.

"Under USDA's verification program, you write down the processes you want to include and USDA certifies that you practice those processes," says McKean. "The program may or may not increase the quality or safety of your product; and it may or may not add any intrinsic value."

Bradley says PSF and Farmland had most of the production standards already in place when the companies decided to verify their systems. However, this is not a requirement and USDA can work with producers in developing a verified program.

"Once producers identify what production processes they want verified, then USDA suggests you develop those processes into a written quality manual and USDA will approve that manual," says Bradley.

The amount of time it takes to establish a program varies depending on each operation, but Bradley says it takes about 18 months from a producer's first contact with USDA until a quality manual is written.

Premium Standard Farms first learned of the program in 1996 and began serious investigation in 1997. By November 1998, PSF became the first pork operation to achieve process-verification status. While PSF had many of the production and management practices already in place, the process of completing the verification still took more than a year. For other operations it's likely to take longer.

Once you complete the quality manual, USDA will schedule an on-site audit, to inspect the production practices and ensure that the plan is underway. USDA also requires that producers perform internal audits and record the data so problems can be corrected between audits.

Verification and certification programs aren't for everyone. Before you delve in, speak with packers or find a niche market for the product to ensure that you will receive enough additional value to offset costs and hassles of developing the program.

But, if you find a market for pork produced a particular way, verification and certification programs will make you a competitive contender in those markets.

What Gets Verified

Every operation puts a different value on different production traits. The same personal preferences apply to USDA's process-verification programs. While there are no hard-and-fast rules, there can be some logical places to start in determining which production practices to verify.

"If you were to put production processes in general categories, food safety would probably be among the more popular," says Jim McKean, DVM, Iowa State University. He points to reductions in enzootic disease, trichinae-free pork, reduction in microbial contamination and antibiotic residue as popular elements of verification programs.

So far, only two process-verified pork production systems exist. The programs implement different approaches, with Premium Standard Farms dedicating its entire Milan, Mo., processing plant to the program. Meanwhile, Farmland extends its program to independent producers. Here are some of the requirements for those groups.

Premium Standard Farms
1. Uses Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points to identify food safety hazards from the farm through the Food Safety Inspection Service.

2. Staff veterinarians are responsible for implementing animal health and welfare protocols.

3. Educate staff and improve identification and communication at the farm to reduce drug residue risk. Document on-farm programs implemented to audit the system and to demonstrate food-safety controls to the customer.

4. No sulfa antibiotics used.

5. Insure traceability by controlling each day's production from proprietary genetics to the end product in the box.

6. Perform visual inspections and microbiological testing throughout the processing facility. Trichina testing for each carcass.

7. An internal technical team audits animal handling and meat quality traits. Routine research on genetics, feed formulation and processing protocols.

8. Environmental systems are continuously monitored and improved in all production and processing phases.

9. Safety programs that exceed Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards. Continually develop and improve employee training and skills.

Farmland's America's Best Pork
1. Use only Triumph genetics.

2. Dietary specifications approved by a nutrition review committee. Certain feed ingredients are prohibited.

3. Feed manufacturing quality control. Batching, sequencing, flushing and sample retention procedures along with related feed production records must be maintained as defined by the Food and Drug Administration's "Current Good Manufacturing Practice Regulations for Feeds."

4. Only Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service-approved biologics are used. Follow Animal Medicinal Drug Use Clarification Act restrictions for medication use.

5. No tetracycline used in feed or water 15 days prior to slaughter. No sulfa drugs used in feed or water 100 days prior to slaughter. Document all treatments by pen or barn.

6. Injections prohibited for 30 days prior to slaughter.

7. On-farm animal handling, including walking amongst pigs two to three times a week. Sprinkling or misting pigs when temperature dictates.

8. Trucks or trailers must be sprinkled with water prior to loading animals in extreme heat. Truck panels must be used when the wind chill is below 30°F.

9. Pork Quality Assurance level III required. Properly tag all animals with a known broken needle.

10. Rest pigs for at least one undisturbed hour before slaughter. Pigs must have access to water. Use defined methods to move and stun animals in the slaughter plant.

11. Dead animal disposal must comply with federal, local and state laws and ordinances. Producer must have an NPPC On-Farm Odor/Environmental Assistance Program audit.

12. Pigs will be traced by lot from production through slaughter and processing, and on to the final product package.

How to Get Started?
To learn more about verification programs, go to USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service Web site at www.ams.usda.gov. There you will find descriptions of existing verification programs, as well as general contact information.

In addition to the AMS web site, there are other places you can go for assistance. Many universities have value-added programs that could guide you in initiating a certification or verification program. Jim McKean, Iowa State University swine veterinarian, suggests that you start with your local Extension agent, as well as talk with other producers and veterinarians who may know of ways to get a project like this rolling.