Food Companies Should Focus on GFSI Compliance While Waiting on FSMA

The Global Food Safety Initiative was established at the beginning of this century, following a number of widely publicized foodborne illness outbreaks that adversely impacted consumer confidence in the industry. The GFSI mission is to provide “continuous improvement in food safety management systems to ensure confidence in the delivery of safe food to consumers worldwide.” GFSI works to harmonize worldwide food safety standards to increase transparency and efficiency in the supply chain and cut costs for manufacturers.

Originally created under Belgian law in May 2000, GFSI is now managed by The Consumer Goods Forum, headquartered outside Paris, France. GFSI is composed of panels of food safety experts from around the globe whose areas of expertise range across the supply chain. There are GFSI technical working groups and stakeholders, as well as conferences and other events. A product of these activities is the GFSI Guidance Document, which establishes auditable food safety practices and procedures based on current scientific knowledge for agriculture, aquaculture, and food production.

The GFSI Guidance Document forms the basis for a process known as “benchmarking,” whereby food safety auditing organizations align their respective auditing schemes and checklists with the GFSI. These auditing schemes are then weighed by GFSI against the GFSI Guidance Document. When an organization’s scheme meets GFSI criteria, the scheme is considered certified, and the organization markets its audit and consulting services to the industry as GFSI-compliant.

As of mid-2012, the auditing scheme of nine organizations have been benchmarked: the British Retail Consortium for food processing; the Safe Quality Food Institute for agriculture and food processing; CanadaGAP (Canadian Horticultural Council On-Farm Food Safety Program) for agriculture; the Food Safety System Certification 22000 for food processing; the Global Aquaculture Alliance for aquaculture; GlobalGAP for agriculture; the Global Red Meat Standard for meat processing; International Featured Standards for food processing; and PrimusGFS for agriculture.

A full evaluation and update of the GFSI Guidance Document is scheduled to occur at least every four years, and there are plans to increase the GFSI scope to include retail and catering, warehouse and distribution, food transport, food processing equipment, food brokers, food safety services, and animal feed.

Facilities that “pass” an audit by a GFSI scheme owner can represent themselves as certified in the audited scheme, and the certification is accepted by most retailers worldwide as a basis for confidence in the facility’s food safety practices. Once certified– in the absence of major safety problems–the facility retains its certification for a period of one to three years, depending on the audit scheme, and thereafter a re-audit is executed to determine the facility’s continued certification status.

Retailers who endorse GFSI schemes typically agree to accept a benchmarked certification audit in lieu of their individual private audit of a supplier. Seven retailers originally endorsed GFSI: Carrefour, Tesco, ICA, Metro, Migros, Ahold, Walmart, and Delhaize. Retail giant Walmart became the first nationwide U.S. grocer to adopt GFSI. Food suppliers who were not certified in a GFSI scheme by the end of 2009 faced losing Walmart as a customer.

In most ways, GFSI-benchmarked audit schemes mandate higher standards for safety than are required by individual governments–even governments in developed countries. At their core, GFSI-compliant schemes are based on hazard analysis and critical control points. Yet they raise the bar higher than HACCP, and, in many instances, also cover food quality programs. The essence of GFSI-benchmarked schemes is prevention; preventing safety (and often quality) problems before they can reach customers.

Most facilities transitioning to GFSI-based programs need to upgrade their product safety programs and process controls. A farm or facility that needs to become certified in a GFSI scheme must complete upfront work that can take months. It is not unusual for a facility to engage in capital improvements and construction projects in order to meet a GFSI-benchmarked standard; location of windows, doors, roofs, traffic patterns, and air flow are scrutinized closely in the certification audits. Likewise, GFSI certification also requires a degree of documentation, evidence of worker competence, and product traceability that is not present in traditional food safety audits (such as a robust supplier monitoring program, an internal audit program, and regular senior management reviews of food safety).

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