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From: Food Quality & Safety magazine, October/November 2005

School Food Logistics

A look at supply chain quality management in the USDA’s AMS National School Lunch Program.

by Steve Olson and Jeffrey Cawley

For over a half century, the USDA has purchased ground beef products to donate to school systems. The program deals in very large quantities of meat products. Last year, the program purchased 135,120,000 pounds of ground beef and patties for approximately $213 million.

The AMS (Agricultural Marketing Service) has to deliver this quantity of meat to school children and guarantee that it is both wholesome and of good quality. To succeed requires a sophisticated supply chain quality management program. In the past, AMS used product specifications and microbiological pass-fail, finished product testing to administer ground beef purchases.

AMS technical and contracting staff constantly monitors program purchases, vendor performance, industry practices, school system feedback, and published research findings, and each year make the appropriate changes to the program requirements.

For the 2003 contract year, AMS implemented the purchasing schedule TRS-GB-2003. AMS modernized its operational control and management and implemented a statistical process system to evaluate contractors. As part of this science-based approach, AMS utilized new auditing and monitoring verification methods to ensure the quality, value, and safety of ground beef products destined for the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and other Federal food and nutrition programs.

For the first time, prospective contractors were required to document their production processes in the form of technical proposals. These proposals must adequately address each performance requirement listed within Technical Requirements Schedule for Ground Beef (TRS-GB). After the contracted AMS officer reviews and approves the proposal, he or she must pass an onsite assessment before being approved to bid on USDA contracts. Once approved, the contractors are subject to monthly audits on all performance measures. AMS has provided its contractors with training in the areas of process documentation and statistical process control. All of the assessment and evaluation systems are modeled in accordance with ISO 9000 Quality Systems Standards.

Given the nature and scope of the changes being introduced, and the need to ensure a sufficient supply of ground beef for the school lunch program, AMS implements certain requirements over a two to three year period. The sampling of boneless beef for microbial performance is an example of a requirement not previously imposed on suppliers that was implemented in this manner. During the first year of the boneless beef testing requirement (i.e., SY 2003-2004), AMS chose to allow suppliers to sample and test their boneless beef for specific microbes using their own procedures and laboratories.

In the following years AMS has required that AMS Designated Laboratories (ADL) analyze the fat content and pathogen levels in the finished ground beef. The ADL conduct tests for fat content (ground beef) and microbial requirements in accordance with AOAC, FSIS, and Compendium of Methods. Tests must be ISO/IEC 17025 accredited by the American Association for Laboratory Accreditation (A2LA).

Figure 1

Laboratories report to both the supplier and the AMS contract management officers. In addition to standard certificate of analyses, the laboratories are supplying both control charts and process capability reports to provide the AMS officials an indicator of each supplier’s process stability and ongoing ability to meet specifications.

The institutional trade is changing its procurement habits and acting like a commercial buyer. The traditional strategy of low bid/lowest cost is being replaced with systems that emphasize value.

To take the ground beef purchase program to a higher level of performance, AMS studied SPC and other advanced process management techniques and reviewed the best supplier selection and supply chain quality management in various industries. The result is the program defined in the Technical Requirements Schedule for Ground Beef (TRS-GB) from 2003 to present.

AMS now behaves like a commercial value oriented shopper and buys from only from qualified processors with stable processes capable of meeting specifications.

Figure 2

AMS is making the assumption that good quality products come from processes tailored to meet all specifications. The emphasis has shifted to the process rather than product inspection. The specifications are evolving to become more descriptive of the end item performance characteristics, such as nutritional and microbial profiles. This allows the producer to have more flexibility and also responsibility to provide a higher valued product.

The TRS-GB is structured to guarantee wholesome and nutritional product for NLSP. Material requirements include that the meat is traceable to cattle raised in the United States and handled in a humane manner. Meat from non-ambulatory livestock is not permitted.

The TRS-GB requires microbial intervention steps, removal of spinal tissue and carcass testing. The boneless beef supplier is required to have boneless beef tested for indicator microorganisms and for the pathogens salmonella and E. coli O157:H7 before grinding. The test results are charted on SPC control charts and histograms to measure performance of the process. The TRS also prescribes removal of objectionable materials, such as heavy tendons, ligaments, bone, cartilage, sciatic nerve and lymph glands.

Figure 3

Prospective ground beef suppliers must submit a documented description of their process (technical proposal) to the AMS Contracting Officer that demonstrates they are capable of producing product that complies with program needs. The supplier is eligible to bid once they complete a satisfactory audit.

Agents of the Meat Grading and Certification (MGC) Branch enforce continuous auditing and in-plant monitoring as long as the contractor participates in the program. Microbial and fat SPC charts and graphs are monitored for process assessment purposes on a daily basis.

AMS specifies fat limitations in terms of a “target.” Except for lean patties, the target for all AMS ground beef production is 15 percent. Upper and lower specification limits are set at +/- 3 percent. Contractors are required to declare fat content on container markings and nutritional facts panel. The performance for fat limitations is measured using SPC charts. The process capability value (Cpk) must equal 1 or higher on 20 consecutive results which always includes last recorded result. To maintain the Cpk value of 1, the processes upper and lower control limits (+/- 3 standard deviations) must be within the upper and lower specification limits.

Figure 4

Supplier Status Review

The contractor is required to test each production lot of ground beef and plot the results on control charts and histograms using their own laboratory. AMS, MGC agents directs separate sample selection from the first 20 lots of a new program. If the process is determined to be reliable, then AMS sampling is reduced to twice weekly. The ADL conducts the tests on samples selected by AMS. To determine reliability, the histograms generated by the ADL are compared with the contractor’s histograms. The process average (mean) and Cpk value are compared. If there is discernible difference between the charts, then the process is declared unreliable and the contractor can no longer participate in the program.

The boneless beef supplier is assessed for process stability by control charts and for capability to meet specifications by histograms and calculated process capability indices.

The AMS and the boneless beef supplier determine the capability of their process according to the TRS. The contractor requires boneless beef suppliers to provide results and process capability status involving each lot of boneless beef to be processed into ground beef for USDA.

To reenter the program, ineligible boneless beef suppliers must provide the contractor and AMS a plan to implement corrective actions. Once the plan is agreed to by the contractor and AMS, then the boneless beef supplier must receive a satisfactory onsite assessment audit from AMS.

Figure 5

Supplier Status Review

Process Assessment Status – sampling and testing of 20 consecutive lots (which will include the last recorded result) for the microbes listed within the table.

The USDA will not allow delivery of production lots of ground beef when results meet or exceed the critical limits within the TRS-GB. When the upper specification limits are exceeded for Coagulase Positive staphylococci, a reserve sample shall be submitted to the laboratory for testing. If the results for the reserve sample exceed the upper specification limit for coagulase positive staphylococci, the production lot will not be allowed delivery to USDA.

Conditional Status – Ground Beef production lots with test results that meet or exceed any of the Critical Limits listed in the table below may not be used in ground beef delivered to USDA.

To regain process assessment status, the contractor must have 20 consecutive results that meet the Cpu (capability index based on the upper specification) and CL (center line - grand average) levels within 60 calendar days.

Ineligible Status – Not allowed to bid until process changes determined to be effective and a Satisfactory Assessment Audit has been received.

Twenty consecutive test results will be plotted on control charts and histograms. A process is not capable when:

  • The Cpu values do not meet the levels specified in the table
  • The Cl values do not meet the levels specified in the table for salmonella and E. coli O157:H7
  • Two (2) or more results meet or exceed the critical limits for standard plate count, total coliforms, or E. coli in the table; or
  • After 2 or more results, the Cpu value is negative.
Figure 6

The results

The first four years of the program have demonstrated the effectiveness of the SPC based supplier selection and on-going supply chain quality management. AMS can point to the following achievements:

Improve supplier selection process. By having contracting officer technical representation (COTR) reviewing technical proposals, better able to select the supplier most capable of delivering quality and wholesome product to the program

Coordinate and Provide SPC Training. Increase the process management skills of both AMS staff and contractors to improve system capability. Improve the functioning of the entire system from the farm to the school. This effectively makes SPC the language of quality – Is your process stable and capable?

Figure 7

Reduce Pathogen Levels. Using uniform data standards and a standard analysis and reporting method (SPC), the AMS has been able to work back through the system to reduce the incidence of pathogens and to reduce the target fat content. Within the context of a standard system, the data can be used to understand the source of pathogens

TRS-GB has been a major success in providing better quality and safer nutrition for the school lunch program. The TRS-GB focuses on two product parameters affecting food safety and nutritional quality – pathogen levels and fat content. In the four years of using the SPC based supply chain quality management program, the AMS can point to major improvement in the effectiveness of the ground beef procurement program:

  • Salmonella incidence rate has been reduced from 5.5 percent to 1.9 percent
  • The AMS has used the program to move the target fat content from 22 percent to 15 percent.

Steve Olson, of the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, can be reached at Jeffrey Cawley is vice president of Northwest Analytical Services (Portland, OR.) Reach him at 503-224-7727 or



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