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).
The GFSI foundation board, a retailer-driven group with manufacturer advisory members, provides the strategic direction and oversees the daily management of GFSI. The GFSI technical committee, formed in September 2006, is composed of retailers, manufacturers, standard owners, certification bodies, accreditation bodies, industry associations, and other technical experts. It provides technical expertise and advice for the GFSI board and replaces the previous GFSI retailer-only task force. GFSI stakeholders—any interested parties that would like to have a voice within the GFSI structure—are also invited to participate in the GFSI decision-making process at annual meetings and through regular exchanges of information.
While GFSI does not undertake any accreditation or certification activities, the fifth version of its guidance document reflects commonly agreed upon criteria for food safety standards, against which any food or farm-assurance standard can be benchmarked.
The guidance document contains three sections:
- The first covers requirements for food safety management systems;
- The second covers requirements for a conforming food safety management standard; and
- The third covers requirements for the delivery of food safety management systems.
Enhanced Achievement Criteria
“We use SQF not just because some of our customers require it, but because it is one of the most widely recognized third party certification credentials available,” says William Schwartz, PhD, chief food safety officer and director of quality assurance for Orval Kent Foods (Wheeling, Ill.), a producer and purveyor of sauces, dips, deli salads, and fresh-cut fruits. “SQF is recognized by buyers and sellers around the world and represents greater criteria for achievement than non-certification audits. It allows us to use a special food safety logo that differentiates us from many competitors in our industry.”
Based on universally accepted CODEX Alimentarius HACCP guidelines, the SQF program was developed in Australia and purchased by the Food Marketing Institute in 2003. To date, SQF has been implemented by over 5,000 companies operating in the Asia-Pacific region, Europe, South America, the Middle East, and the United States. Over 30,000 certificates were issued against GFSI-recognized schemes in 2007, a 50% increase compared to 2006.
There are tremendous benefits to a strong accountability system all stakeholders can count on, Dr. Schwartz says. For starters, audits can be the basis for employees’ understanding and enthusiastic implementation of company practices and policies, as well as for the ongoing evolution of a company’s self-improvement.
“We’d all like to see in person all the companies we do business with,” Dr. Schwartz says. “Auditing, especially a third party audit certification program, is the next best thing to ensure food safety, quality, and defense, and to prove to our customers we’re a good company to do business with. An SQF certificate can be an important marketing tool for any company to help attract new customers.”
“Stakeholders may accept GFSI, but if they have a need for additional information pertaining to their particular products, that could more likely be handled through a short addendum instead of another standalone audit,” Chestnut says.
Kevin Edwards, director of U.S. food business development for the audit, inspection, and testing services of SGS Consumer Testing Services, agrees. SGS is a global quality assurance firm based in Geneva, with offices and labs around the world. “Private label retailers and major brands are concerned as much about the quality of the auditors as the selected standard. This is why many have developed their own standards and auditor training programs with a natural reluctance to forgo that trust and investment in the near future.”
Auditing firms spend considerable resources to train their auditors and educate their clients about the benefits of GFSI, Edwards says. “Our clients are realizing that if they are producing products for Wal-Mart and they use one of the accepted GFSI standards, those same audits for Wal-Mart will be acceptable for other customers,” he says. “Since there’s no longer a need for multiple audits and compliance to a myriad of food safety standards, cost savings are significant.”
On the grower side, there’s an increased interest in monitoring to corporate social responsibility standards, Edwards adds. “While there are modules within some of the GFSI standards to address these issues, we do not have evidence that the industry is willing to back these ‘add-ons’ to replace their well-developed corporate standards,” he says.
“Corporate social responsibility is increasingly more important to food buyers,” Edwards says. “They recognize their dual role now in support of both ethical treatment of workers, as well as food safety-related challenges with livestock and produce. It’s not just farms in China that are being scrutinized, but farms in North and South America as well. Suppliers and buyers need to be aware of that and scrutinize management practices so they don’t get into the press for unethical practices.”
Optimum facility security is an additional priority to buyers, Edwards says. So is information technology. “Retailers want to know how to use database management to gather information, evaluate their supply chain, and reduce brand risk.” Edwards is quick to emphasize that a fully integrated quality system includes audit results, product quality test results, and product inspection.
“In order for your manufacturing processes to meet these global standards, it’s vital to integrate control points to minimize the risk of product contamination from physical, biological, or chemical hazards,” Edwards says. “To that end, suppliers should also construct control points into their security measures and make them transparent to future buyers. Major brands as well as retailers have expressed greater interest in their suppliers’ ability to account for traceability from the ingredient level all the way up the production ladder to the grocery store shelf.”
“It’s inevitable that certification will one day become a ‘must have’ if you are a food processor in the United States, as more and more members of the U.S. food buying community require it,” Chestnut says. “At this point, the industry still knows very little about what certification is.”
The current challenge in the food industry is to balance the risks in universal acceptance of the uniform quality standards represented by GFSI, Edwards says. “The food chain is so dynamic now,” he says. “For cost control and supply chain efficiency, we need more reliance on GFSI.”
Leake is a food safety consultant and writer based in Wilmington, N.C. Reach her at email@example.com or (910) 799-4881.