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Food safety assurance services, including third-party certification, second-party auditing, and training have experienced a boom period in the 21st century. Those changes, which have directly benefited a wide range of stakeholders, first and foremost consumers, but also including retailers, manufacturers, processors, and their suppliers and providers of assurance services, have largely been driven through the Global Food Safety Initiative, or GFSI.
To the general public, the GFSI is a relatively unknown entity, but to its members, the likes of Coca-Cola, Wal-Mart, and Cargill, among others, the GFSI is the engine that drives food safety around the globe. The GFSI’s parent organization, the Consumer Goods Forum, hosted the February 26 to 28 Global Food Safety Conference in Anaheim, Calif., with over 1,000 of the world’s leading food safety experts attending. Food fraud, assessment, certification, standards, auditor competency, testing, and managing risk were all high on the agenda.
That is a long way from the first Global Food Safety Conference, back in 2001, which had just over 100 delegates and was the first step along the way to bringing food industry retailers, manufacturers, processors, and their stakeholders together. That first GFSI conference took place in Geneva at a time when food safety was making headlines for all the wrong reasons. Large, global companies in the food supply chain realized that the harmonization of food safety standards, sharing of best practice, and more robust assessments of facilities were of paramount importance. At that time, there were over 100 food safety standards, with little oversight as to which ones were the most effective. Most of them were stakeholder owned and managed, thereby bringing their independence into question. Assessors from certification bodies were struggling to keep up with all of the requirements from competing standards, most of which were one day, checklist style “snapshot in time” audits.
One of the first significant steps that the GFSI made following their May 2000 launch was to benchmark existing standards and schemes to bring about a reduction in the number available to the market at large. Further, GFSI members began formulating a more robust approach, moving towards a process-based management systems assessment methodology. This looked more at the documented supporting systems and processes to determine how risk was managed at a facility rather than if, for example, the shop floor was clean at 10:52 on a Tuesday morning.
Throughout its history, the GFSI has listened to their members and stakeholders, even when that feedback raised fundamental questions about key stakeholder groups. An example of this was the opening of the 2011 conference, where the results of a survey that delegates filled in as part of their registration process were shared with the audience. The number one concern for food safety professionals was listed as “auditor competency.” This was a clear signal from the users of assessment and food safety certification that it wasn’t just the piece of paper on the wall they valued, it was the insight, knowledge, and experience of auditors who understood their clients, the industry in which they operated, as well as the standard or scheme against which they were auditing.
Even at this stage, the leaders of the GFSI knew that addressing auditor competency had to be done with—not to—global certification bodies. The result was the strengthening of the GFSI Technical Committee, with LRQA and DNV being amongst the certification bodies working alongside leading retailers, manufacturers, suppliers, consultants, processors, and academics with a shared objective to ensure that robust assessment was targeted at helping organizations minimize their food safety risks, rather than a return to the pre-GFSI era of certification at any cost.