The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service announced in mid-August that its Harmonized Good Agricultural Practices (HGAP) Plus+ certification program for fresh produce was accepted as technically equivalent to the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) Safety Benchmarking Requirements (Vers. 7.1). As a result, producers, packers, handlers, and those storing produce can prove with one compliance step that they are in line with GFSI Benchmarking Requirements Key Elements.
“The GFSI Benchmarking Requirements specify the elements a certification program must contain to be recognised by GFSI,” explains Lee Green, communications director for the Consumer Goods Forum, which hosts the GFSI within its mandate. “They include requirements on the management of the certification programme (part II), and elements about the content of the auditing standard itself (part III). Aligned with Codex Alimentarius, these science-based requirements incorporate stakeholder input and are regularly revised to promote best-practices and evolving needs in the industry. To be technically equivalent, a program must comply with the requirements relevant to the content of the standard. This acknowledgement is a confirmation that the program’s standard contains all the key elements of an efficient food safety system, as considered by the GFSI community and Codex.” [mobile-ad name=”Advert 1″]Jennifer McEntire, PhD, is vice president, food safety and technology for the United Fresh Produce Association, which is Secretariat to the Harmonized Standard. She stresses that Technical Equivalence is available only to government-owned certification programs, and explains the HGAP was developed through analysis of 13 private GAP and food safety audit standards with the goal of harmonizing similar food safety components.
“In order to take into account the differing structure of government-owned certification programs, [the Technical Equivalence] category allows for the acknowledgement of a program’s equivalence against the relevant technical requirements of the GFSI Benchmarking Requirements,” Dr. McEntire underlines. “It is distinguished from GFSI recognition of private certification programs, which also assess the program’s governance and operational management components.” [mobile-ad name=”Advert 2″]Benchmarking is a relatively longstanding tradition among private certification programs, she says, but what’s new is the opportunity for government programs to achieve technical equivalence. Achieving GFSI recognition means a program is acknowledged to uphold best practices on a global level.
“Many customers require that their suppliers be audited against an audit standard recognized by GFSI,” says Dr. McEntire. “The documentation and processes that are required by the standard (and to meet GFSI technical equivalence) typically facilitate regulatory compliance as well.”
Green says producers whose systems and practices are certified with HGAP Plus+ and now aligned with the safety values of a worldwide community of food-safety experts can more easily show a wider customer base than ever that they meet global standards.
“As the GFSI Benchmarking Requirements align to the FSMA requirements,” he says, “as much as an alignment between a detailed regulation and a global benchmarking tool is possible, it also gives confidence that sites’ practices are also close to alignment with this key piece of regulation. This is reassuring for producers and distributors, and for their customers.”
Green notes that since its founding in 2000, the GFSI has brought together stakeholders from across as much of the global food industry as possible to work together on improving food safety worldwide.
“An essential part of that goal is to create a common and widely-accepted understanding of what constitutes a good food safety system. The GFSI Benchmarking Requirements are the result of that ambition; they allow harmonization of food safety practices throughout the world through a domino effect,” Green says. “The Benchmarking Requirements are regularly updated to stay relevant to the latest food safety management approaches; Certification Program Owners then have to adjust to stay aligned, certified sites update their systems to maintain their certification, and consumers get access to safer food. The latest version of the Benchmarking Requirements is a good illustration of this: The inclusion of a requirement on food fraud and food defense has cascaded down swiftly to all standards since the inclusion of those topics in the Requirements 18 months ago.”