Large, multi-plant, and international food companies typically have the capital and technical resources to manage their supply chains. Many of these companies have one or more departments dedicated to evaluating, selecting, and monitoring their suppliers and associated raw materials. This is generally not the case for small- to mid-size food processors. In some cases, on-site audits of suppliers to smaller food companies are not economically or technically feasible.
In lieu of frequent on-site audits, a company can create and maintain a current preferred vendor list for all the ingredients used in the manufacture of their finished products. This list should be available for all employees involved in procurement, accounting, quality assurance (QA), and warehouse/receiving. Creating and managing this vendor list presents some challenges.
To start, QA personnel, in cooperation with purchasing representatives, should create a questionnaire or survey for prospective and current suppliers. This document is the primary decision-making tool for small- to mid-size food processors, companies for whom on-site food safety audits are not always feasible. First, the document should include a series of questions about the supplier’s quality-related programs, the authority and reporting structure of its QA department, and what role production management plays when it comes to quality. With specific regard to quality, your suppliers should, at minimum, be able to provide information about the following programs, policies, and procedures:
- hazard analysis and critical control points plan;
- preventive maintenance program;
- pest control;
- sanitation program;
- recall and ingredient traceability;
- metal detection program and/or magnet verification;
- personal hygiene;
- foreign material control (including glass and hard plastic);
- customer complaint program;
- employee training program specific to good manufacturing practices (GMPs) and personal hygiene;
- allergen control; and
- food security policy.
Keep in mind this is not an all-inclusive list. A comprehensive QA program involves much more than just providing a list of quality systems and food safety programs. For a small- to mid-size food processor, however, the objective is to glean as much information as possible from the supplier in order to make an informed decision. The aforementioned list is a minimum requirement. If a vendor cannot at least comply with these requirements, consider another supplier.
Lab Practices and Resources
Second, the questionnaire should include a section intended to obtain information about laboratory practices and resources. Does the vendor have its own laboratory or does the company contract through a third party? Does it use formal laboratory methods and procedures? What is the extent of the educational and training programs for its QA personnel? In addition, use the questionnaire to request documentation pertinent to your organization and products. For example, consider requesting a flowchart for the ingredients you intend to purchase. The flowchart should include clearly designated critical control points, points of introduction of allergenic ingredients, if applicable, and any magnets and/or metal detectors that may be used. Also, request a copy of the supplier’s liability insurance certificate, which every company should have on file.
You should also request your supplier’s current emergency and 24-hour contact information. In exchange, provide your supplier the same information. In the unlikely event of a recall or food security event, you and your supplier must be able to contact each other immediately. Ensure that both you and your supplier make this information readily available to all members of the managerial and security team.
Another document to request regularly from your supplier is verification of mock recalls. Be sure the verification includes, among other things, a volume reconciliation of product that was produced to product that shipped or is still in inventory. Mock recalls should also periodically include traceability of suspect raw materials through the finished product and should then be reverse tracked to include any other finished products that may have been affected by the suspect ingredients.
If a third party audits your supplier, you may request a copy of the latest audit report. Larger companies conduct their own supplier audits or contract through a third party. In either case, the audit results are not typically shared with other companies. A supplier that does not comply with your request should at least confirm whether or not an audit took place. As an alternative, you can request a copy of the latest self-inspection, which all companies should conduct. In conjunction with the self-inspection report, request a copy of corrective actions taken against any discrepancies noted.
Request Product Sample
It should go without saying that before deciding on a supplier for any ingredient, you should request a product sample and a corresponding technical data sheet. This may seem obvious, but some companies overlook this simple task. The sample should be of sufficient quantity to conduct a “test run” in your own facility; you need to replicate the manner in which your own product will be produced to avoid any surprises later. If the ingredients you intend to purchase are subject to routine analysis, as is the case for most commodities, inform the supplier that you expect a certificate of analysis (COA) with each shipment. The COA should include clearly defined parameters agreed upon by both you and your supplier.
Also, inform your supplier of your requirements regarding load security. Will you require that shipments be sealed with numbered seals that match those on the bill of lading? Again, this is common practice, especially with commodity-based products. While this documentation cannot necessarily take the place of an on-site audit, there are many tools available to help ensure the quality and wholesomeness of the ingredients you procure.
Lindenmuth is owner and general manager of Food-Fit LLC, a technical services consulting firm. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.