(Editor’s Note: This is an online-only article attributed to the October/November 2017 issue.)
The seafood industry has recently been speaking out about audit fatigue. In an effort to increase the value of the certification process, producers are seeking opportunities to reduce costs by integrating audits, while making logistical changes to improve the integrity and quality of the certification process.
One of the main reasons producers complain about numerous audits is because many of the accepted certification schemes address similar compliance criteria. In addition to repetitive audits, the process is further compounded by unskilled auditors, fluctuating costs of certification/auditing, and constantly changing requirements. This dreary cycle of low-quality audits is dumbing down the certification process and creating a ground-swell of negative perspectives in the B2B supply chain.
Since the inception and adoption of accredited certification schemes, buyer exposure has been reassessed based on commitment to a certified supply chain. Even if the quality of audits does not meet expectations, the presence of a certificate changes the buyer liability in the event of a claim. Certification attempts to insure retailers that they are packing high-quality, sustainable, safe products. From a senior management perspective, audits have been accepted as a necessary burden. Retail markets will continue to dictate the requirements, and processors will need to bend over backwards to meet those requests. The increase in product recalls, withdraws, and outbreaks will continue to provide a precedence for certification-based quality assurance requirements.
For retail seafood buyers, running out of product is not an option. Projecting long-term access to high volumes of different species and product forms has become a seafood industry norm. For this reason, mid-sized processors must put themselves in the shoes of the largest buyers to understand the competitive landscape of the market. Importers and distributors responsible for private label products cannot depend on one producer to address long-term purchasing goals. Price fluctuation, natural disasters, disease, detentions, and other pitfalls provide additional complexities, often forcing quality assurance to be the first criteria to be sacrificed. Sourcing seafood for large scale retail establishments is not for the faint of heart.
A wide range of options are available for certification, which is largely based on operator size and intended market. Buyers who seek to provide large complex retail and food service chains require accredited certification from farm to fork. A visit from the distributor/retailer can also be expected to conduct an audit based on various compliance criteria. Smaller scale producers supplying domestic markets often do not require certification, but may be required to undergo an unaccredited good management practices audit. It’s the medium scale processors that are finding it most difficult to adapt to changing market requirements for certification, especially when buyers are requesting farmers and processors meet a variety of different standards.
While there are legitimate differences between standards and benchmarking programs in place to establish equivalence, processors continue to uselessly undergo a variety of repetitive, careless audits. If certification is to continue providing cost-effective verification of the supply chain, operators will need to refocus on integrating and improving the robustness of the audits being conducted, not racing to the to see who can obtain a certificate at the lowest cost. Certification has slowly been morphing into a process of maintaining flawed/forged documentation, and sowing other seeds of deceptiveness rather than committing the necessary resources to training, verification, and validation of quality and safety practices.
Lastly, the old ways of certificates, ledgers, and recordkeeping are primed for an upgrade. Management of disagreement amongst parties is expected to be revolutionized by blockchain technology. There is great potential for blockchain (a collective and open-access ledger system) to provide the necessary tools to further verify food quality and safety. Industry professionals are expecting the supply chain to make a serious commitment to blockchain, which in turn will force the supply chain to meet new traceability and transparency requirements. In other words, more than one set of eyes will verify the authenticity of a certificate and other claims to food safety, quality, sustainability, and social accountability. Access to this new resource of data will encourage retailers to request larger, more complex sets of compliance criteria, forcing the industry to “raise the bar” for retail products. As blockchain provides a new network of verification for determining the safety and quality of food products, it will bolster (not replace) the existing third-party certification model.
It is high time for distributors and retailers to take on more responsibility with the certification process. It’s not enough to simply file away a certificate, as time has proven that this model does not represent a supplier’s real-time ability to comply with quality and safety criteria. Right now, it’s essential for brand owners to start scrutinizing certification bodies and the competency of their auditors, conduct more supplier site visits with competent authorities, and seek additional tools to validate and verify that all parties are universally devoted to protecting the brand and its reputation.
Zimmerman is founder/CEO of Safe Quality Seafood Associates, LLC. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.