From certifications and dietary labels to nutrition facts and ingredients lists, deciphering food packaging and manufacturing requirements can be overwhelming. Although some types of certification, such as USDA Organic, are generally well-known and understood, other areas of manufacturing, namely USDA meat certification, are less so.
USDA organic certification indicates that a product has been grown and manufactured in a sustainable and safe way. It is a powerful way to set your product apart from competitors. Meanwhile, USDA meat, poultry, and egg certification signals that products are safe, sanitary, and properly labeled and packaged. As more consumers are leaning into products that promote a healthy lifestyle and reflect their own values, bearing the USDA seal has become a key strategy in building consumer confidence and loyalty.
This resource guide will cover what the USDA is and does, what USDA certifications are and why they are important, and which businesses/products require USDA certification.
What is the USDA?
The USDA, or United States Department of Agriculture, is a government entity that supervises food, agriculture, natural resources, and public policy. The USDA was formed in response to foodborne illnesses linked to low-quality ingredients in knock-off packaged goods during the 19th century. Unlike the majority of the packaged foods brands at the time (whose products were often overcooked or spoiled), Henry J. Heinz used modern technology to consistently provide high-quality and food-safe products at affordable prices.
Hoping to maintain its favorable reputation for safety and quality in the growing CPG industry, Heinz alongside Dr. Harvey Wiley, the Chief Chemist at the USDA at the time, extensively lobbied for stricter regulations until the U.S. government eventually passed its first labeling requirements under the Pure Food and Drugs Act in 1906.
The USDA today ensures that the products Americans consume are produced and manufactured in a way that is safe, regulated, and standardized. Through its 29 agencies and 100,000 employees, the USDA upholds food safety and protects public health by overseeing food handling, preparation, packaging, and labeling. If it weren’t for the involvement of the USDA in food manufacturing, Americans might still be consuming the irresponsibly produced, poorly packaged, and unsafe food products that dominated the 19th century!
What is USDA Certification?
There are two primary types of USDA certifications for packaged goods: meat, poultry, egg manufacturing, and organic labels.
First, there is USDA meat inspection labeling. The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) certifies meat sold commercially across state lines. The Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA), a USDA public health agency, outlines these FSIS regulations. The regulations include meeting standards for processing, labeling, facility sanitation, and slaughtering operations. In order to comply with FMIA regulations, businesses need a Federal Grant of Inspection, which certifies that their manufacturing procedures have been inspected and qualified as safe.
The USDA also has voluntary labels that grade the quality of different meats. The three most common meat quality labels are USDA Prime, USDA Choice, and USDA Select. Prime indicates that the beef has ample marbling and comes from a young cattle, Choice identifies higher-quality meats, and Select signals that a meat is the leanest compared to Choice or Prime meat.
There is also USDA shell egg grading, which is a voluntary service for which shell egg producers choose to pay. These labels certify that eggs have met sanitary and quality standards. There are three categorizations of consumer grades for shell eggs: AA, which indicates the freshest and highest quality eggs, A, which signals high-quality eggs, and B, which refers to lower-quality eggs that are often used for baking.
The final type of USDA certification indicates a product’s organic status. Foods with a USDA organic certification must meet several requirements established by the USDA on their website. They must be produced according to federal guidelines regarding soil quality, animal raising, and living conditions, pest and weed control, resource cycling, and use of additives.
In addition, organic products must be produced in a way that follows agricultural practices, improves soil and water quality, preserves natural resources, avoids the use of harmful or toxic substances (like pesticides), and promotes biodiversity.
Lastly, organic food production must be overseen by an agent authorized to certify operations to USDA organic standards—or a USDA-NOP (National Organic Program) authorized certifying agent—to ensure that all guidelines are followed. For more information on USDA organic certification, check out our knowledge article here.
Who needs USDA certification?
If you are a CPG company that manufactures meat products, you will need USDA meat certification to sell packaged meat products across state lines. Without this certification, the markets that your products can reach will be substantially minimized. This is because you will only be able to legally sell in the state in which you are manufacturing.
If you produce shell eggs and want to signal to consumers that your products are high-quality and have been produced sanitarily, then you will want to get USDA egg certification. This certification is voluntary and comes at a price, but it helps distinguish your products from competitors.
Lastly, you will need USDA organic certification if you want to claim that the products your business handles, processes, or sells are organic. This includes vendors that package and sell/deliver products online, processors that sell more than $5,000 of organic processed products, handlers that sell more than $5,000 of organic processed food, and farms that sell more than $5,000 of organic products per year.
For more information regarding who does and does not need to be certified, check out this fact sheet from the USDA website.
Why is USDA certification important?
There are several economic, social, environmental, and health benefits that accompany following USDA practices and bearing the USDA seal, especially in the CPG industry. Not to mention, USDA certification is required to sell meat products across state lines.
For businesses hoping to sell packaged products containing meat, USDA certification is required, since packaged meat products cannot be sold across state lines without it. The USDA certification process also ensures that you are producing in a food safe manner. This is critical for avoiding outbreaks and recalls related to spoilage in your product.
USDA organic and meat certifications are a powerful selling point for consumers. It guarantees the quality of your product, indicates that your brand cares about more than just making profit, and, as a result, provides consumers with the assurance they need to invest in your product. Consumers want to buy products that reflect their health and lifestyle choices and are more willing to pay a premium price for USDA certified products. These higher prices will offset the costs of using and sourcing all-organic ingredients.
Retailers are aware of consumers’ growing preference for organic products and actively seek out certified products for their stores. Having a USDA seal will give your product greater access to local, regional, and international markets.
Business perks aside, USDA certified products also have environmental and health benefits: they improve soil and water quality, conserve energy, promote ecological balance, increase biodiversity, and ensure that you are consuming only the most responsibly-produced products out there.
USDA certified products are reliable products. They have the best chance of increasing sales, building consumer loyalty, and accessing a greater number of markets. Achieving USDA certification will position your product and business for success in countless ways!