Eugene Martin Excellence in Customer Service Award

Every year the LP (Livestock & Poultry) Program of the USDA AMS (Agricultural Marketing Service) puts out the call for nominations for the Eugene Martin award. However, in my view, that effort is merely another way for the AMS to pat itself on the back; while doing little to nothing. That award announcement once prompted me to ponder who were the customers were, that Meat Certification QAD (Quality Assurance Division) employees provide service to. QAD Graders involved primarily in further processing product certification rotate going out of town to provide vacancy, vacation and sick leave relief at carcass grading Duty Stations across the Country. But, the opposite situation is very seldom the case. The few big certification Duty Stations are set up to be relief stations; with surplus “relief” Meat Graders working there. When Certification Graders are called upon to perform carcass grading they are sometimes years out of practice and unfamiliar with the plant that they provide service to. You see, Graders at certification Duty Stations are far removed from the majority of other USDA Meat Graders. Of the approximate 150 full-time Meat Graders, nearly 3/4 of them are stationed in the “beef patch.” The beef patch is the region of the U.S. where the bulk of U.S. market cattle are fed-out and harvested. That area is comprised of the Texas panhandle, Eastern Colorado, Western Kansas and pretty much all of Nebraska. So, Certification Meat Graders are a distant minority within a tiny group of Federal employees. Interestingly, the school children of the entire Nation are the final customers of USDA Meat Certification Graders. Besides school children and Certification Graders there are the Further Processors (who pay the AMS for third party monitoring then pass that cost on to schools), the schools (that are subsidized by both Federal and Local tax dollars) and tax payers (who presumably want the best for the children at a fair-efficient cost). I feel that a report is owed to all those that care enough to read it (conscientious, continuous improvement types). This insight may give some additional insight to stakeholders. True continuous improvement will require effective communication between the various Government agencies, businesses and schools that strive to best serve our Nation’s primary and secondary youth.

The AMS’s QAD originally became involved in monitoring the further processing of Government donated raw, domestically produced meats for school lunch programs due to “a few bad apples;” who took advantage of by diverting or under-yielding the tons of meat that they were contracted to further process. At that beginning point the monitoring was a police like function where AMS agents were on site to count raw frozen meat blocks in, calculate the expected yield off an approved EPDS (End Product Data Schedule) and issue production certificates stating production run facts (meat in, production loss if applicable and finished case count out). That simple function was much less than of traditional Meat Grading; assuring that carcasses or fabricated meat cuts reached specified Quality and/or Yield levels prior to being stamped as specified. In the days before the Further Processing Certification Program (FPCP) there were AMS employees with Animal Science degrees and/or many years of meat industry work experience doing no more than counting meat blocks in, rubber-stamping finished cases and writing production certificates. The advent of the FPCP was designed to give Graders involvement in assuring that specified quality levels are attained. Thus making use of Certification Grader’s related formal education, and/or years of meat industry experience. Much of the FPCP service is identical to the various production checks made by Plant Quality Assurance departments. The difference being that a Plant QA departments are only as effective as top company management will allow them to be. Therefore, third party, AMS presence is designed to assure that Plant production records are worth more than the paper that they are written on.

Still-yet, there exist some things that prevent even the best Certification Grader from being all that they can be. Those circumstances can be caused by having to follow what upper level AMS officials have approved, things that FSIS Meat Inspection turns a blind eye to, Meat Plant HACCP is only as accurate as the conscientious Plant personnel recording it and political influence that permits the usage of unapproved manufacturing practices. Meat inspection is particularly troublesome because Graders have to be carful not to “step on their toes” in meat plants. On the other hand, I more than once presented an Inspection concern to a Meat Inspector only to be told “put on your big boy panties and take care of it yourself.” The following is a list of things that can happen, for one reason or another.

-Donated meat blocks partially cooked on the edges and wax from the cardboard shipping container interior liner melted onto the meat. Once when I showed melted wax on beef blocks to an Inspector he told me that it was beef fat. When I then showed it to Plant management, I was told that it was edible.

-The use of previously thawed and then refrozen/dehydrated meat blocks should be disallowed. But are sometimes used if no one stops it.

-Meat grinding area Plant personnel sticking utility knifes through raw meat block cartons and into product.

-Continuously dripping water from a meat mixer water fill pipe.

-Leftover sanitation water and/or sanitizer foam left in meat tubs and/ or meat mixers at production start-up. Sometimes there’s particles of debris (“floaters”) left in the leftover sanitation water.

-Commercial fat trimmings approved to be mixed in with USDA donated meat is supposed to always be in “Excellent” condition (have a fresh appearance and smell).

-If too much water is ran into a batch, it has to be reformulated to specified proportions. Any misformulated batches that are not corrected prior to cooking should be thrown out of the school-lunch certification program.

-Raw block cartons that have been forked open with forklifts, or otherwise significantly damaged in freezer storage, should be surface trimmed or thrown our altogether.

-Skids of frozen raw meat blocks should not be thawed out in oven rooms; where block edges will reach over 40F while the block interior is still frozen.

-Partial bag weights of soy grits have to be accurately scaled and not guessed at by pouring some into the meat mixer.

-Thin sheets of cardboard sometimes remains attached to raw meat blocks. When this occurs, the cardboard should be trimmed off prior to block grinding.

-If discharge tubes are not connected to grinder head bone-chip collectors, bone-chips fall into the auger feeding the meat mixer.

-Processing equipment that is not in good repair should be reported to FSIS Inspectors, but they might not be on site. Or, in the case of sloppy running formax plates, pounds of “Other Than Normal Loss” should be listed on production certificates. There may be rules approved for the usage of “formax leakage;” and which contains more water than the approved formulation. In order to use such raw rework it should be not have standing water in the collection tub, remain below 40F and be used every hour. Additionally, the weight of all rework (raw & cooked) is required to be recorded on the formulation record of the affected batch.

-A spiral freezer breakdown can cause patties to burn-up in the continuous oven. Also, cooked patties can sometimes blow off the spiral freezer belt. The poundage of each should be recorded on the production certificate as other than normal loss.

-Remind plant personnel to calibrate their production floor thermometers; if there was no calibration log entry observed during daily records review.

-Formax dump tub exteriors can contain condensation water or their bottoms and be coated with floor water slung up from puddles. So, tubs should be lowered back down immediately after meat-mix releases from them. Bouncing a tub on the lift slings bad water into formax patty machines.

-Continuous further processing of USDA donate meat is a supposed requirement. However, there are cases where a Plant gets FSIS approval to run for three days straight; and then shuts down for 6 to 8 hours. That practice results in a lot of dry-dark meat on processing equipment surfaces. And, I have seen hot-cooked interim meat being held for hours before meat shredding and final batch cooking happened.

-Remind Plant production personnel to clean dirty temperature probes, power pallet jack handles, and tub lift buttons; as they become covered with warm-drying meat or meat-mix during multi shift production runs.

-Watch for burnt or otherwise discolored finished product.

-If raw product plant areas have too high of temperatures, report to FSIS (if they are on site) or to Plant QA personnel.

-Watch for commercial item being ran directly behind USDA donated product on continuous oven lines. These products can not be intermingled (even if of similar raw formulation).

-At the end of production, keep sanitation employees from getting steam, condensation and/or airborne soap partials near meat products that are still being processed.

-Assure that that cooked patties that are out of weight specifications are reworked and not boxed as finished goods.

-Slow down patty packaging lines if product and backing up to the point where dragging on the moving belt causes it to begin to thaw and/or it starts being pushed off onto the floor. The packing of patties that have fallen onto box stands is also discouraged.

-When putting on new rolls of film for pouched products, the rolls are sometimes unwound to the point where they contact the floor.

-Pouches to be reworked are sliced open with a knife and dumped into a tub to be mixed in with a later batch.

-Unlabeled finished product cases going into freezer storage with product label on them.

-Cooked rework from oven rooms going back to the wrong lines grinding area to be used as rework in a new raw batch.

-Stop Plant personnel from holding back patties during bi-hourly test wand metal detection checks.

-Both broken brass sewer clean-out caps and broken PVC vent pipes emit bacteria laden sewer gas directly into meat processing areas.

-Product rework sent to freezer storage is to be reincorporated into new batches within 3 months of initial production.

-I have seen cooked product from the previous day’s production come out on a spiral freezer belt first thing in the morning.

-Heavy layers of raw patty mix sometimes sticks to formax dump tub bottom interiors, and should be scraped out at regular intervals as production proceeds.

-Chronic over-yields of some pouched, sauce type items due to unspecified added water. Further processors of USDA donated meat products are paid on a finished case produced basis.

-Plant line worker attrition is high, so Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) training is an ongoing battle that can lead to burnout/fatigue on the part of Plant supervision.

-Condensation often forms on the underside of panning below patty packing belts, after finished cases drag through condensation box closure tape will not stick.

-Hard clumps of seasoning are sometimes released from meat mixers and go directly to patty forming machines. I have also seen undissolved small clumps of sodium phosphate go directly into pattying.

-A grinding area employee might touch all the following: bloody plastic skid shrink wrap, pallet jack handles, meat tubs, grinding platform stair rails, raw meat block carton exteriors, pick up loose block straps from the floor, trash bins, plastic barbells, shovels, exposed raw meat blocks (to reposition them), leveling ground meat-mix in tubs and emptied skids/pallets after meat blocks have been thrown.

Soup and sauce type items should be made in a condensed form to save untold packaging material, freezer storage space and shipping expenses.

Large scale food production is a good thing, but it needs continuous improvement.