Top grocery stores and restaurants in the United States guarantee their customers consistently get high quality products through rigorous standards and robust testing and oversight programs. USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) is doing essentially the same thing – working to ensure that recipients of federal nutrition assistance programs such as the National School Lunch Program get meat, poultry, egg products, and seafood that match the quality and specifications used by the best commercial firms.
AMS purchases products through a competitive process among approved vendors. Some of these purchases support American agriculture by providing an outlet for surplus products. The products are delivered to schools, food banks, and households in communities across the country and are a vital component of our nation’s food safety net.
The Food Safety and Commodity Specifications Division (FSCSD) within AMS’ Livestock, Poultry, and Seed program sets standards and provides testing and oversight for these purchases. The specifications developed for the various federal food and nutrition assistance programs are critical, ensuring recipients receive safe and nutritious food. FSCSD develops, reviews, and continuously refines AMS purchase requirements for various food safety attributes like food defense and metal detection, cooking and refrigeration, and allowable tolerances for microorganisms. Results from purchase testing are used to monitor vendor performance and determine their eligibility as vendors.
One key to developing and maintaining rigorous and achievable specifications is transparency—both for the standards themselves and for the ability of AMS vendors to meet them. The purchase specifications used by AMS to purchase foods—including microbiological testing and animal handling and welfare requirements—are always publicly available. We also post all of the results from microbiological testing of products and from animal handling and welfare audits performed by AMS on our website. The data shows the quality of the products we purchase and the humane manner in which the animals were handled to make the products.
Another key to the success of the program is ensuring we can purchase from a robust pool of qualified vendors. That’s why FSCSD, in collaboration with AMS Commodity Procurement, will soon be hosting the Vendors Outreach Webinar Series, a collection of free interactive training sessions on how to become an AMS-approved vendor. The goal of the webinars is to assist potential vendors with the application process, aiming to increase the vendor pool. This will help ensure that USDA programs and their recipients receive the best possible product while the government (and taxpayers) pays a competitive price for the foods. Registration and other details about the upcoming webinars are available through our website.
Providing safe and nutritious foods to recipients of federal nutrition assistance programs is a tremendous responsibility, one that requires the best efforts of all involved, including the food producers, the purchasers and distributors, and those that develop, and oversee adherence to, purchase specifications. FSCSD and AMS are proud to be a part of this partnership and will continue to ensure only the best possible products are reaching school lunch plates.