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Postharvest Information Network

Sunday, March 24, 2019

WSU-TFREC/Postharvest Information Network/The "Partners in Quality" Program

The "Partners in Quality" Program


I am an Assistant Head of the Field Operations Section, Fresh Products Branch in the Fruit and Vegetable Programs, Agricultural Marketing Service, Washington, DC. We provide inspection services for the fresh fruit and vegetable industry in cooperation with the Washington State Department of Agriculture, our Federal Supervisor stationed in Olympia, Mr. Dale Guyant, and my headquarters office in Washington D.C. In addition to my duties and responsibilities in the Field Operations Section, I have primary responsibility for the PARTNERS IN QUALITY program.

First, I'll give you some background on the Branch's involvement in the PARTNERS IN QUALITY program, or PIQ, as it has come to be known, and how the PIQ program evolved. Second, I'll describe the PIQ program and compare it with traditional end-line inspection and certification. Third, I'll give some of the pros and cons of the PIQ program. Lastly, I'll do my best to answer whatever questions you have concerning the PIQ program.

The Branch was approached by the Florida citrus industry about 9 or 10 years ago, asking if there was some other method of inspection that would cost less. At that time, our answer was "no"; there was no alternative. A few years later, the agency, the Agricultural Marketing Service began studying quality management systems, like ISO 9000, [International Organization of Standards quality systems], and TQM, [Total Quality Management], and other quality systems.

After some study, we realized that there might be an alternative to the traditional, end-line inspection we had been using for the past 80 plus years. We had no idea of what it was, or how it would look, but we were willing to work on developing a program that would meet the needs of the government and industry. We then reopened discussions with the Florida Citrus industry to see if they were still interested, they were.

Our main concern was then, and still is, program integrity. Any program must have at least the level of integrity we have now, or USDA wants no part of it. For industry, the focus was lower inspection costs - a goal for all of us in this era of budget constraints. Additionally, industry wanted all governing or regulatory requirements combined in one program, sort of "one-stop-shopping." We developed the PIQ program with these criteria in mind, ever mindful that without these elements we did not have a program.

We are here because of the following factors:

  • Industry concerns over increasing costs of inspection.
  • Our concerns with increased production, increased speed of packinghouses & reluctance of industry to pay for additional inspectors to maintain sampling ratios required by policy under the present inspection system.
  • Pressure on federal & state budgets to "do more with less."
  • Our desire to be responsive to industry needs.
  • Our interest in maintaining program integrity.

PIQ Objectives

  • Better system of quality assurance.
  • Maintain or improve program integrity.
  • Focused use of limited resources.
  • Compliance with laws, policies, marketing orders, other requirements.
  • Become true "Partners In Quality" with industry.
  • Audit frequency depends on level of compliance.
  • Quality built into process.
  • Awareness of internationally recognized systems

The Partners in Quality Program is a Documented Quality Assurance System. It is the fresh Products Branch's Documented Quality Assurance System. We developed it as a unique program. It combines elements of ISO 9000, HACCP, TQM, and other Quality Systems. Australia and New Zealand have similar programs in various fruit and vegetable industries, which I had the opportunity to review. The PIQ program began in the Florida citrus industry, but it can be applied to any industry.

PIQ in Industry

We are currently operating in several industries, including Florida citrus, third year, with 14 participants; California tree fruit, off-season, second year, with 7 participants (9 packing houses); Idaho potatoes, pilot year, 4 participants; California pears, off-season, second year, with 1 participant.

The PIQ program is in the developmental stages in the following industry / areas: Washington potatoes, approaching pilot year (3/98) with 4 possible participants; Oregon / California potatoes, approaching pilot year (3/98) with 3 possible participants; Louisiana sweet potatoes, approaching pilot year (6/98) with 2 participants.California kiwifruit, citrus and apples; Florida tomatoes; and, Washington tree fruit.

Definition of Documented Quality Assurance System

Let me explain what a Documented Quality Assurance System is. We have defined this in general terms that we all can relate to:

  • Documents are proof, evidence, records, manuals, or specifications;
  • Quality is a specified level of characteristics or attributes;
  • Assurance is a pledge, guarantee, confidence or certainty;
  • System is a method or organized procedures.

Through organized procedures in your packing house, you show evidence that the specified level of attributes is guaranteed in your packed product. These "attributes" are:

  1. Levels of quality in actual fruits & vegetables, such as U.S. #1, Wash Extra Fancy, or contract specifications;
  2. Meeting the various requirements necessary to ship product legally, such as marking requirements, issuance of certificates, or phytosanitary requirements being met; and,
  3. Meeting the various requirements of the program, such as monitoring when necessary, maintaining records, or taking corrective actions when appropriate.

The inspection service moves from inspecting and certifying each lot or a day's run packed to inspecting and certifying the process that makes the product. These are known as Quality Systems AUDITS. The inspector audits the process in operation, the records that were generated from the process, and the product both in-process and packed (stored product).

In a Documented Quality Assurance System the level of quality trying to be reached is a known level of quality and the various requirements are known. Based on these known factors, you:

  • Document what you plan to do
  • Do it
  • Record the results of what you did
  • Judge the critical operations against what was expected or required
  • Take actions to correct what went wrong, document the actions, and
  • Continue.

A Walk through the PIQ Program

  1. USDA developed the PIQ Program Specifications, i.e., WHAT the program requires. This includes input from the state (Florida) and cooperation & involvement by other federal & state government agencies that regulate product/program (six in total), all rolled into one program. Think about the agencies involved in your industry (federal, state & local); the external requirements; and the internal "in-house" requirements you are striving to meet.

  2. The packinghouses develop their Quality System and document it in a Quality Manual, showing HOW they will meet the requirements of the PIQ.

  3. USDA-state review the Quality Manuals to determine whether they meet the requirements of the PIQ (paper or desk audit). If approved, the Quality Manual is returned to the packing house for start-up; if not approved, the Quality Manual is returned for further development.

  4. Once the Quality Manual is approved, the packinghouse operates for a pre-determined minimum number of hours, using the procedures it has documented in its Quality Manual, generates records, and takes actions necessary to keep system in control. Traditional inspection is on-going to certify the product at this time; it is a "Dual System" period.

  5. The packinghouse requests a "Validation Audit," which is an audit of their quality system. This audit will determine whether the operations are effective in maintaining the Documented Quality Assurance System developed and can maintain compliance with all requirements. It covers all aspects of the quality system, top to bottom, front to back. If approved, the packinghouse enters into the "Verification Audit" stage; if not approved, the packinghouse works through the details to correct either the written procedures in the Quality Manual or the implementation of the procedures in the operations.

  6. Verification Audits are audits that take place on a regular basis to show continued compliance with the requirements of the program. The frequency of Unannounced Verification Audits occur depend upon the level the packing house has attained. This starts at the lowest level (Level 3), and continued improvement moves packinghouse up through Level 2 and Level 1.

    Packinghouse Pieces of the Program

    • Quality Manual
    • Operation of Quality System
    • Participate in Audits
    • Make corrections, if necessary based on audits
    • Continually improve

    USDA-State Pieces of the Program

    • General information, overview of PIQ
    • PIQ specifications:
      • Management responsibility
      • Organization
      • General system
      • Process control
      • Packed product control including PLI
      • Inspection, measuring testing equipment
      • Quality records & documentation
      • Appendices & references
    • Guide for developing PIQ program Quality Manual, including risk analysis worksheets & matrix
    • Audit Procedures Guide, including audit planning
    • Systems audit checklist, including non-conformity report
      • Perform audit, issue report
      • Accept corrective actions, if any
    • Definitions of Non-Conformities

    The PIQ has a set of specifications that must be met, including the packing house developing a quality manual that addresses HOW they will meet the specifications. This quality manual addresses the entire system - from incoming product to outgoing packed containers. The packing house must identify the areas that are critical in the process so that product can be shipped that is in grade, and that all requirements are met. The packing house must demonstrate that the process is IN CONTROL. This is the PROCESS CONTROL section. It is modeled after the HACCP principles, which are

    • Identify risks to quality and requirements being met.
    • Identify critical control points - after which the risk cannot be controlled.
    • Identify critical limits - after which actions must be taken to correct.
    • Identify monitoring procedures - to show level of control: in or out.
    • Identify corrective actions - pre-determined whenever critical limits are exceeded.
    • Identify records - results of monitoring procedure and any corrective actions will be recorded.
    • Identify verification procedures - how to determine if corrective action was effective.

    The packinghouse identifies critical areas throughout its system that if left uncontrolled could have an impact on quality, marketing order requirements, and other requirements. The packinghouse further identifies how it will control the activities at the critical areas and how it will measure the effectiveness of their control. The only limit that is pre-set is for the product in a package - it must meet the applicable lot tolerance for quality, size and markings.

    At each critical area they record the performance of their system at that point; judge the performance against the limits they set and take appropriate preventative and corrective actions as necessary.

    These records and actions are audited by the inspection service to determine the level of compliance with the PIQ specifications and their own quality manual. After successful audits of the quality manual and of the quality system (validation audit) the packing house operates using their system without traditional full time end-line inspection provided by the inspection service. That is not to say they are not being inspected - they are operating a quality system, and certifying on the PIQ certificate that they are operating the system according to the requirements, and are being audited regularly. The inspection service audits all aspects of the Documented Quality Assurance System. The level of compliance is demonstrated through audits which equates to the audit frequency level attained.

    Traditional end-line certification is inspection at only one point in the system - the end of the line. Product either passes or fails. If it passes, we assume all is well; however, if it fails we know there is a problem somewhere in the system. We have no idea where the problem specifically occurred, but only that it resulted in product that failed the requirements. The end of the line is the most expensive point to find and correct problems. You've washed, sized, graded, labeled, packed, marked containers and palletized it only to have it fail the requirements.

    Documented Quality Assurance System identifies problems throughout the process. Corrections are made during the process if problems are found; product is guaranteed to be acceptable at the end of the line - unless you are paying someone to put defects back into the cartons, obliterating correct markings, smearing PLI, or mixing in-grade and out-of-grade product.

    It would not be fair to talk about the program without giving some advantages and disadvantages.

    Advantages for Industry

    • Cost of prevention less than cost of correction
    • Potentially lower inspection costs, including overtime & call-back charges
    • Lower costs for repacking or rejection of lots
    • More quickly pinpoint cause of problems that impact quality
    • Better trained, more responsible workforce
    • Can ship when needed, not wait for inspector
    • Program designs could be marketing advantage [see designs at end of text.]
    • Greater customer acceptance due to more consistent quality
    • Better staff morale, responsibility rather than just a job
    • Not mandatory, it is an alternative to consider
    • Possible competitive advantage

    Disadvantages for Industry

    • Responsibility for off-grade rests with you
    • Training costs, for staff at critical points
    • Documentation & records required

    End-Line Certification Disadvantages

    • Most expensive place to catch problems
      • Costs of grading, packing, marking, already incurred.
      • Additional expense of dumping, regrading.
      • Adversely affects productivity.
    • Can result in laxity among in-house graders & packers
      • Inspector will catch problems.
    • Delayed detection results in further losses
      • Problem occurs at harvest - already packed
      • Problem occurs in storage/cooler - already delivered to receiver

    Advantages for State

    • More effective and efficient use of personnel
    • Industry responsible for quality
    • Recruit higher qualified personnel
    • Less need for minimally qualified seasonal personnel
    • More professionalism among staff, trained as inspectors & auditors
    • Inspectors when needed, auditors when needed
    • Better relations with industry, true "Partners In Quality"

    Disadvantages for State

    • Smaller staffing needs
    • More complex scheduling needs

    Design Descriptions

    PIQ Design without shield to indicate participation in the program with product meeting a defined level of quality, not necessarily U.S. #1.
    PIQ Design with shield to indicate participation in the program with product meeting U.S. #1 or better quality.

Ms. Leanne L. Skelton, Assistant Head

Field Operations Section,
Fresh Products Branch, USDA

14th Annual Postharvest Conference,
Yakima, Washington
March 10-11,  1998

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