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USDA Provides Guidance in New Grade Standards

 
By Caroline J. Beck
02/01/2011

While other industry resources like the UC Davis Taste Panel, the California Olive Oil Council (COOC) and the American Oil Chemists’ Society (AOCS) have embraced and supported the roll-out of new standards for olive oil grades established in 2010, participation in the USDA’s own certification program has been slow to materialize. In fact, no producer to date has yet received USDA certification. Whether this has been due to lack of knowledge about program implementation or lack of clarity about costs or marketing value remains to be seen. After some months of seeking more information about the program, with the help of Jimmie Turner, spokesperson for the USDA, we were able to clarify some of the steps on the path towards USDA certification. The full text of his interview is published below.

First announced in April 2010, new USDA standards became effective on October 24, 2010. According to the USDA, the revised standards are intended to provide a common language for the trade and provide consumers more assurance of the quality of olive oil that they purchase. These standards were long in development, designed to make the U.S. competitive with worldwide standards, and have been widely embraced by the industry.

As part of the new program, the USDA announced that they would offer a voluntary certification to producers interested in securing USDA-authorized inspection and grading. To that end, the USDA’s Science Specialty Laboratories in Blakely, Georgia completed training and staffing for chemical and organoleptic (taste) evaluation. Recently, the lab confirmed that they are ready to fully support testing of the new standards.

The challenge has been that producers were stymied when investigating how to participate in the program and what costs they can expect to incur. It became a labyrinth of exploration starting with the USDA’s Processed Products Branch and answers were not easy to come by. Further, there is concern that the USDA certification program might create a double-edged sword if consumers come to believe that quality oil can only be guaranteed by a USDA shield of certification - an issue that will be especially challenging for smaller producers with less capital resources to put toward becoming USDA-certified.

According to Turner, the following information should provide better direction on how to achieve USDA certification. This electronic interview with Mr. Jimmie Turner of the USDA was conducted January 7, 2011.

If growers are interested in obtaining USDA certification, who do they contact?

The Processed Products Branch (PPB) of USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS). PPB, a unit of AMS’s Fruit and Vegetable Programs, has 14 nationwide field offices and 15 additional inspection points. Growers can contact the nearest PPB field office listed on our PPB Offices web page.

What applications need to be filled out?

An application for inspection service may be made to the PPB Inspection Office or to any PPB inspector, at or nearest the place where the service is desired. An up-to-date list of the PPB Inspection Offices of the Department may be obtained on our PPB Offices web page. Satisfactory proof that the applicant is an interested party with a financial interest in the product shall be furnished.

Information required in connection with application:

Application for inspection service shall be made in the English language and may be made orally (in person or by telephone), in writing, or by fax. If an application for inspection service is made orally, written confirmation may be required by the inspection service involved.

In connection with each application for inspection service, there shall be furnished such information as may be necessary to perform an inspection on the processed product(s), including but not limited to, the name of the product, name and address of the packer or plant where such product was packed, the location of the product, its lot or car number, codes or other identification marks, the number of containers, the type and size of the containers, the interest of the applicant in the product, whether the lot has been inspected previous to the application by any Federal agency, and the purpose for which inspection is desired.

Is there a published fee structure? We understand it is based on number of samples and extent of analysis, but as a grower, what information could I receive that would give me an idea on how much it will cost?

Fees for PPB inspection and certification are provided in PPB regulations, located in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) at: 7 CFR 52, and can also be found on our PPB Fees web page.

PPB fees are based on a lot inspection rate of $62 per hour; this fee includes: travel time, sampling, grading and certification. The fees are based on the size of the lot and the time required to provide services. Additional information regarding fees can be obtained from any PPB Inspection Office.

In addition, there is a separate fee for the laboratory analyses required for grading olive oil. Laboratory fees are based on a current rate of $81 per hour, which can be found in 7 CFR 91. The laboratory fees include all required analyses, both chemical and sensory, as well as sample storage, recordkeeping and reporting. For more information, growers may go to the website of the AMS Science and Technology Laboratory in Blakely, Ga., or contact Michael Miller at (229) 723-4570 or James Falk at (202) 720-8369.

Fees and charges for any inspection service shall be paid by the interested party making the application for such service. An advance of funds prior to rendering inspection service or a surety bond shall be required as a guarantee of payment for the services rendered. All fees and charges for any inspection service shall be paid by check, draft, credit card or money order payable to the United States Department of Agriculture. Payment shall be sent to the address specified on the bill for collection on or before the due date to avoid a late payment charge.

What is the actual process for certification? Is it to first contact someone at the USDA Processed Products Group, then be directed to Blakely lab? Or is it all handled through the PPB once the process gets started?

Please contact the nearest PPB Inspection Office of the product to be inspected and complete the FV-356 Form: Application for Inspection and Certification of Sampling. The office can also give you an estimate of the fees for the inspection and certification.

How much time does the process take?

Once the sampling is scheduled and the product is available for sampling, the process may take up to 15 business days to complete.

Do you know who I should contact at the FDA regarding enforcement of the revised standards or have any suggestions of where I should start?

USDA is responsible for enforcing grade statements that include the official “U.S.” prefix, marks or seals. All other labeling requirements are the enforcement responsibility of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). At FDA you may contact Felicia Billingslea from the Center for Food Science and Applied Nutrition’s Labeling and Food Standards office at (301) 436-2373.