IT Solutions for Food Safety Management

The past decade has seen a major shift in how the safety of our global food supply is managed. High-profile food safety incidents have driven a regulatory response, increased consumer consciousness, and placed new demands on food business operators.

This shift can be characterized by three key events, the first being the European Union’s establishment of 178 general principles and requirements of food law. Introduced in 2002, following the BSE and Belgium dioxin incidents, this regulation represented a radical shake-up in how food businesses in the EU operated by creating the European Food Safety Authority, establishing risk assessments as the basis for all food regulatory decisions, setting up the EU-wide rapid alert system, and mandating new obligations for food business operators.

The second key event is the emergence of the Global Food Safety Initiative as a core driver in defining the elements of an effective food safety management system. In May 2000, following a number of food safety incidents, the CEOs of a group of international retailers identified the need to enhance food safety, ensure consumer protection, and strengthen consumer confidence. The result was GFSI, which sets the requirements for food safety schemes.

GFSI benchmarks existing food standards against food safety criteria and ensure that these standards have the same core requirements. This facilitates mutual recognition among the requirements of participating standards, thus avoiding duplication of audits. GFSI-recognized standards include the SQF, BRC, IFS, and FSSC 22000. These are rapidly becoming the standards for food certification, and many businesses must use one of these approved schemes to manage safety.

Finally, and more recently, FSMA was signed into law in January 2011. The law aims to ensure the safety of the U.S. food supply by shifting the focus of federal regulators from responding to contamination to preventing it. The legislation represents a radical devel­op­ment of food safety efforts in the U.S. and will have wide-reaching impact, changing how the FDA manages food safety prevention, inspection and compliance, food imports, and food defense.

But what does all this mean? For governments, it means protecting the health of citizens, and for consumers, assurance that their political leaders and major food retailers are on the job. For food businesses, these events are a powerful motivator to invest in food safety systems to protect the health of their customers and the value of their brands. However, the practical impact of these events on food businesses can be distilled further. In short, they all require businesses to have a food safety plan in place.

For example, the EU 178 regulation requires food business operators to identify and regularly review the critical points in their processes and ensure that controls are applied at these points. GFSI standards place Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Points (HACCP) at the core of the internal food safety management system. Moreover, FSMA will require 165,000 domestic and 254,000 foreign businesses to have a certified food safety plan in place. Herein lies the challenge.

On its face, this appears to be a reasonable and straightforward requirement. For the food technologist, quality manager, and consultant, the difficulties presented on the ground are clear.

For food businesses, recent legislation is a powerful motivator to invest in food safety systems to protect the health of their customers and the value of their brands. However, the practical impact of these events on food businesses can be distilled further.

So, what is a food safety plan? At its most basic level, it is a written plan defining how a food business ensures the safety and legality of the food it produces. It is developed from a process in which management defines how it produces food, what can go wrong in its production, and how the company can detect potential problems and take action to prevent them from reaching the consumer. This is a simple explanation for the complex process described in the principles of HACCP.

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