Are you a believer in the benefits of having a documented and effective food safety system? Many food plant operators have built a system because most of their customers indicated that they would need to develop that system to continue doing business with them. As a result, a large segment of the industry has charged forward with Safe Quality Foods (SQF) and other Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) third-party certification systems to meet customers’ needs. With many food production facilities now having SQF-like systems in place, it’s a good time to explore the benefits of having this type of system.
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Importance Management Commitment
The strength of any food safety system is the commitment of management. This commitment drives a cultural shift at the establishment and is a requirement for any food safety system to succeed. SQF has inserted management commitment as the first requirement. When going the certification route, senior management is required to assign an “SQF Practitioner” to manage the food safety system and in time if managed and supported, their employees will master this system moving forward.
The SQF Practitioner is like the system’s “doctor” and maintains the commitment to safety with direct oversight for the food safety system through annual reviews and continuous improvement. In the past, Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) food safety systems recommended management commitment in the guidance document, but SQF mandates it. If the practitioner practices the program and improves its structure and function over time, consumers will get products with higher and higher levels of confidence in food safety.
Constant review by this master of the system is required. Even though this is a requirement that is a benefit to the operation, practitioners vary in its use. If they have a strong process for review in place, it not only serves the customers and consumers, it can lead to improvements that reduce liability risk and save the company money through efficient operation and other discovered improvements. The requirements to be continually trained and to develop valid food safety plans also adds strength to the development of standards.
The Power of Certification
Getting an initial certification only means that the system meets the requirements of the standard in that moment. However, the ongoing implementation and maintenance of the food safety systems against the standards coupled with the annual independent audit requirement means food safety attributes and quality standards of the products are continually monitored and improved.
Many businesses seeking certification thought that once they were certified, they would be “Compliant” forever as long as they did not change a thing. Unfortunately, this strategy did not apply to the “modern” GFSI-recognized schemes. These were designed to be under constant review and improvement. Since 2008, the SQF standard has undergone five revisions (Editions 6, 7.0, 7.1, 7.2, and 8.0). The SQF Technical Review Committee is responsible for making updates to the SQF Code and is comprised of stakeholders with representation from food retailers, certification bodies, and food processing professionals with experience and insight into how to construct effective food safety programs. This periodic revision process has forced SQF Practitioners and the industry to embrace and manage their food safety systems in a manner that manages change and constantly improves their food safety systems to adapt to these changes. As an example, the SQF Code requires that all SQF-certified food processors (called “suppliers” prior to Version 8.0 but now called “sites”) comply with existing government food safety requirements. Ultimately senior management is kept informed as to how the system is delivering safe food and protecting their brand and the consumer.
The Power of Audits
Another important attribute to GFSI-recognized schemes, such as the SQF standard, is that there are rigorous criteria and ongoing training requirements to become a licensed or certified auditor. All auditors within these systems must have prior knowledge, education, and experience in a specific food sector. Again, the strength and value of the audit is dependent upon the thoroughness and professional capability of the auditor. The auditor is required to re-register each year to confirm that they continue to meet their requirements for registration. One weakness that is appearing in the GFSI-recognized systems is the lack of any requirement to conduct field evaluations of auditor performance, which has been demonstrated to be an issue in a few instances where FDA has conducted investigations soon after a GFSI third-party certification audit and the differences in the finds was significant.