(Editor’s Note: This is an online-only article attributed to the February/March 2018 issue.)
Having recently guided the food safety team at my company through a successful SQF Level 3 certification process, our first attempt at certification, I thought it would be helpful to offer some steps that may benefit companies interested in similar Global Food Safety Initiative benchmark certification schemes.
The SQF scheme is simple, write what you do, and do what you write—ensuring the elements of the code are integrated in your practices. Below are seven steps that I found to be beneficial in ensuring certification success.
Step 1: Designate the right person for the job. The first point I want to make is that a college degree, while good to have, is not required to secure such certification for your company. You need to know the SQF Code and what it requires for your company as each company is unique. It is advisable that the person designated as the SQF practitioner be knowledgeable, and I would recommend STEM due to the scientific nature of the management system to be developed being Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) based. Per the Code, the person who is designated SQF practitioner must be HACCP trained, and with Edition 8 of the new code replacing Edition 7.2 as of Jan. 2, 2018, the new Quality Code mandates the SQF practitioner be “competent in statistical process control (SPC) and/or other quality tools to reduce process variation and drive root cause analysis of non-conformities.”
Step 2: Management support. No matter how qualified the SQF practitioner or how well he/she prepares required documents, without management support at the highest level, it will be like “beating a dead horse.” The SQF practitioner is designated by management and there are key responsibilities enshrined in the code for the management team.
Step 3: Support from all staff. The prepared documents must be implemented, and no one person can implement documents that impact all departments without the support of all team members. The SQF system is a management system designed to prevent or reduce possible adulteration of food. This is why the principles of HACCP are embedded in the document and the expectation that the person preparing the documents be HACCP trained.
Before the HACCP plan can be developed, there exists prerequisite programs that must first be considered such as current Good Manufacturing Practices, which impacts several departments. For instance:
- The HR department is responsible for personnel who are considered when developing the company’s Food Defense Plan;
- The project management department, maintenance department, and environmental department may all be impacted when you look at building design and facilities;
- The production, food safety, and environmental departments may be impacted by sanitary operations, equipment and calibration, and production and process control, and
- Warehousing and distribution may impact the logistic and accounting department, and the list goes on.
Step 4: Testing the program. This management system requires testing to ensure effective implementation and allow for improvements. No new car on the road gets to customers before rigorous testing. Likewise, your plan must be tested. The first test of the plan in my opinion is at the required document audit, also called desk audit. The document audit is not scored, but should there be majors or minors for instance, they must be addressed before you can clear that stage. Likewise, you cannot have a facility audit without first going through the document audit phase.
Once cleared of the document audit phase, you are assured you have all required documentations for a successful system. You now have time to further improve and implement the system. For example, while not required, there is a pre-audit that can be scheduled, which helps you see how prepared your facility is for a facility audit. Like the desk audit, it is not scored, but it does help in providing focus areas that may need to be improved.
This is not to say that by correcting all the pointers made in the pre-audit you will be guaranteed success, but it does help in my opinion. For instance, should you get a critical non-conformance during the facility audit despite a successful desk and pre-audit, you will fail the audit, as a critical non-conformity automatically deducts 50 points, and you need 70 points at minimum to pass.
The code provides details on critical, major, and minor non-conformances, in addition to opportunities for improvements.
Step 5: Knowing the code. While the SQF practitioner must know the code, it is advisable that all backup to the SQF practitioner be familiar with the code as well, such as the HACCP team. There is no rule that says only one SQF practitioner can be on staff, you can have as many as best provide success to the company and the SQF program. However, each SQF practitioner must know the code. Knowing the code is your best tool for successful certification, and in knowing the code, you can better share the expectation to management and other staff, who for the most part will not have time to study the code due to their busy schedule.
Step 6: Confidence. If you know you have a good written and implemented program, it increases your confidence. Your confidence however might not be felt across the team. Therefore, you need to find a way to share that confidence and thus boost the confidence of your team members. I remember in the middle of the second month before our facility audit, we had a meeting where the team members started asking what were our options should we fail? That question brought me back to earth as I never thought of failing. It was a good question as it drove me to revisit the code and look at all alternatives that I never considered before. Don’t be afraid of failing and have a plan in the event of failure. Thankfully, we never had to use our backup plan, as we went through the process with flying colors.
Step 7: Networking. There are numerous resources available today and many qualified personnel; it would be very challenging in my opinion to not find someone who has not guided a company similar to yours through the SQF certification process. While you can expect reluctance in sharing company documents, which is understandable, they may be willing to share pointers that helped them to get through the certification process no matter what level they applied. Reaching out might help to guarantee your success.
My company’s approval for SQF certification is exciting as I have not yet reached my second-year anniversary in food safety, which proves that if my team can do it, any dedicated team can too.
Dr. Chambers is a food safety specialist at Sun River Service Co., Wilson, N.C. Reach him at email@example.com.
For further information on SQF, go to http://www.sqfi.com/about-sqf/.