Historically in the United States, supplier audits have been accepted as external verification that a company was producing safe food. These second party audits are conducted either by internal staff employed by retail and food service companies or by auditing firms that can conduct generic or customized food safety audits. Third party audits, backed by certification bodies and typically incorporating stringent international standards, haven’t been widely accepted or utilized in this country.
That’s because the long-standing system has seemed to work reasonably well, so there has been no perceived need for a major overhaul, says Tom Chestnut, vice president of supply chain food safety and quality programs for NSF International, a public health auditing and testing organization in Ann Arbor, Mich.
“Third party certification audits also require a degree of trust by retailers in systems that are not in their direct control, and such audits are generally more expensive,” Chestnut says. “The traditional and more customized approach allows each retailer a certain amount of individual choice and control, which is not the case with third party certification auditing.”
Despite established mindsets, a dramatic cultural evolution toward embracing third party certification audits is underway in this country. Spurring that evolution is a dynamic new retailer-driven certification program called the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI), launched in May 2000 by CIES—The Food Business Forum (CIES). CIES stands for Comité International d’Entreprises à Succursales, which is French for International Committee of Food Retail Chains.
Founded in 1953 and based in Paris, with regional offices in Washington, D.C.; Tokyo; Shanghai, China; and Singapore, CIES is the only independent global food business network. It brings together the chief executive officers and senior management of some 400 retailer and manufacturer members of all sizes, representing 150 countries.
“The emergence of bovine spongiform encephalopathy in the United Kingdom in the mid-1980s forced the U.K. and European Union to look at a more harmonized approach to food safety long ago, and that eventually led to the impetus for GFSI,” Chestnut says.
Once a group of CIES members identified the need to enhance food safety, ensure consumer protection, and strengthen consumer confidence, they proposed a plan that would set requirements for food safety schemes and improve cost efficiency throughout the food supply chain. In 2000, following their lead, CIES developed a comprehensive food safety program to help stakeholders work together to decrease food safety scares and risks, provide better quality products for consumers, and enhance transparency between all links in the food chain.
GFSI is Key
As a key component of that program, GFSI promotes continuous improvement in food safety management systems to ensure confidence in the delivery of safe food to consumers. To that end, the GFSI objectives are:
- To facilitate convergence between food safety standards through a benchmarking process for food safety management schemes;
- To improve cost efficiency throughout the food supply chain via common acceptance of GFSI-recognized standards by retailers around the world; and
- To provide a unique international stakeholder platform for networking, knowledge exchange, and sharing of best food safety practices and information.
In December 2007, major global retailers began requiring their food suppliers to achieve audit certification against one of the four GFSI-recognized standards: safe quality food (SQF), British Retail Consortium, and International Food Standard and Dutch HACCP (hazard analysis and critical control points). To date, eight retailers—Carrefour, Tesco, Metro, Migros, Ahold, Wal-Mart, Delhaize, and ICA—have agreed to common acceptance of the four GFSI-benchmarked food safety schemes. Additionally, the food service sector recently created a strategic alliance with GFSI through the National Restaurant Association (NRA).
“Since food safety is a non-competitive issue, a collaborative, multi-stakeholder approach is essential to success at the global level,” says Donna Garren, PhD, vice president of health and safety regulatory affairs for the NRA (see “Challenges and Rewards of GFSI,” left).