Quality Control Procedures
Quality control begins with the seed source. Producers generally work with the processor to select the best varieties from reliable seed producers to ensure the harvested product is the best quality and offers good, marketable traits.
Product Grading Standards
The inspection of legumes is a service provided under the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946. It is offered upon request by either a Federal Grain Inspection Service (FGIS) designated cooperator (e.g., the State of Washington) or an FGIS field office, depending upon the location of the lot and the type of inspection requested. Official inspections are performed by trained and licensed (or authorized) official personnel employed by FGIS or a cooperator.
The U.S. Grade Standards provide the produce industry with the uniform language for describing the quality and condition of commodities in the marketplace. In partnership with industry members, the Agriculture Marketing Service (AMS) of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) develops and revises these standards so that they always reflect modern business practices.
The USDA post-harvest inspection standards assess insect infestation, color, odor, moisture content, standardization in size and color, and many other factors. FGIS provides a system by which grain can be tested and graded anywhere in the U.S. under consistent and uniform procedures. Inspections involve securing a representative sample from each lot and classifying each of the individual peas or lentils in accordance with the established grades. The inspector’s report shows the percentage of peas or lentils in each of the various grades. Application of the standards requires the services of private or official inspectors.
Crops are tested for pesticide and fungicide residue and are not allowed to exceed set limits for these factors. Strict sampling standards ensure proper grading of the product. Dry peas, lentils, and chickpeas are sampled first for insect infestation and are not sampled for other factors if sufficient evidence of infestation is found. Special care is typically taken to protect samples from manipulation, substitution, and improper handling.
There are many ways in which a sample may lose its representativeness. A sample will no longer be considered representative if it is:
- Spilled, no matter how little is lost or how much could be recovered.
- Stored in an improper manner or in an area not under the control of official personnel.
- Not analyzed on the same day as it is obtained and stored in a cool, dry place to prevent any change in condition.
- Transported by means that do not ensure the integrity of the sample.
When marketing food-grade dry peas, numerous factors affect market grade, including market class (e.g., green or yellow cotyledon, specialty types), seed size and shape, splitting potential, harvest moisture, seed handling techniques during harvest and storage, and seed damage factors (e.g., bleach, cracked seed coats, splits, shriveled seed, earth tag, chalk spot, etc.).
For green peas, the most important grading factor for the human market is seed color. Green varieties are susceptible to bleaching as they near maturity, often caused by high humidity, bright sunshine, and warm temperatures. Other major factors in downgrading pea quality include soil particles, splits, cracked seed coats and shriveled, immature seed.
Unlike other legumes, decorticated lentils (i.e., lentils from which the hulls have been removed) are treated as a processed product and are considered a non-standardized commodity. They may be inspected for quality factors (e.g., damaged kernels, skinned lentils, etc.) but not graded.
For inspected legumes, a certificate is issued for the individual lot or submitted sample whether for kind, class, grade, factor analysis, equal-to-type, or other quality designations as defined in the standards or instructions, or for any other approved services performed. Other services that may be shown on the certificate include check weighing, check loading, check counting, condition of food containers, plant approval, and observation of loading.
In response to its continued growth, the USDA began tracking overall organic food production in 2009. U.S. organic food sales amount to approximately 4.5 percent of total food sales, though the portion that is made up of organic pulses remains uncertain. As organic pulses have only recently begun to attract attention, there remains a dearth of market statistics. A significant portion are grown as a green manure, cover, or forage crop, and less for human consumption.
At the retail level, overall organic sales have grown 15 percent to 20 percent each year for the past couple of decades, led most recently by dairy and meat. The dramatic growth in dairy is an indicator that many more organic feed peas are grown now than were grown 10 years ago. Peas are, in fact, likely the largest organic pulse crop as they are relied on by larger organic farmers as an important feature of their crop rotation plan to increase the quality of the subsequent wheat crop.
Though a definite figure has not yet been established by the USDA, it is estimated that the number of acres devoted to the production of organic pulse crops is in the thousands—about 1.5 percent of total agricultural acreage. In 2001, according to the USDA, certified organic dry peas and lentils were grown on more than 9,300 acres. North Dakota led with over 3,500 acres. Organic dry peas and lentils accounted for approximately two percent of the total dry pea and lentil acreage in the U.S. The European Union total is about equal to the U.S. market for organic sales, though its percentage of organic food sales to total sales is larger.
Much of the overall organic food consumed in the U.S. is imported from producers outside the U.S. Currently, a significant quantity of those organic legumes are imported from Canada, Turkey, India, China, and South America. Foreign organic legume production has always been larger than domestic U.S. production, with Canada, Australia, Turkey and India being key producers.
The challenges of organic pulse farming include the following:
- Organic farmers cannot use synthetic herbicides or pesticides, so weed pressure is always an issue. Chickpeas are a particular challenge since toxic or synthetic seed treatments are prohibited, highlighting the risk of ascochyta blight.
- Organic farmers are required to use organic seed when available. Seeding rates also tend to be higher than for cereal grains, meaning that seed costs per acre are significantly higher for organic legumes than for organic wheat.
- The organic pulse market remains niche in size. As a result, there are a limited number of buyers in a given region and often no local markets for feed-grade product.
- Organic edible legume markets tend to be very quality sensitive, making it difficult to sell anything less than a top-grade lentil in most years.
- Competition is aggressive in both domestic and foreign markets.
- There is little university research on organic legume production and organic variety development.
All indications are that organic markets at the retail sales level will continue to grow at 10 percent to 20 percent per annum for the foreseeable future. Expectations are that demand for organic food will continue to outpace growth in all other food categories. This, combined with the increasing awareness of the connection between diet and health, suggests that the demand for organic legumes will also increase and that organic legume production will grow as an important, albeit small, part of overall production.