Global standards. Consistent audit schemes. Validated certifications. Across the food supply chain, the concepts are being increasingly discussed, tested, and required. It is a trend that is being reported in articles, white papers, and reports from around the world, such as the 2012 report from the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) on global trends which stated, “Developed countries place growing importance on information and logistics technologies, and food safety and quality standards.” What is driving this trend? Are processors adopting global standards? And, if so, is it by choice or mandate? And, most importantly—What does this really mean to the industry?
To gain some perspective, we put the questions to a number of industry suppliers who focus on or work with audits, standards, and certifications on a daily basis.
All those who responded verified the trend, noting that they are seeing a definite increase in food manufacturers seeking certification, primarily that of Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) certification. The key drivers of the trend are major retailers and other next-level customers who are realizing a need for global consistency. And this is having a trickle-down effect, with an increase in the demand for certification in several food sectors, including packaging, storage and distribution, produce, and pre-farm gate, said Robert Prevendar, managing director of NSF International’s Global Supply Chain Food Safety programs. In many ways, he said, certification to GFSI-benchmarked standards is, in essence, becoming a ticket to do business in the global marketplace.
Are you seeing a trend toward increased certification in the food and beverage industry? If so, would you see this as being driven by the plants themselves, their customers, general consumers, and/or the media?
In 2000, food safety was a top-of-mind issue for companies and consumers due to several high-profile recalls, quarantines, and negative publicity about the food industry. There was also extensive audit fatigue through the industry, as retailers performed inspections or audits themselves or asked a third party to do this on their behalf. These were often carried out against food safety schemes that lacked international certification and accreditation, resulting in non-comparable auditing results.
Because of this, CEOs of global companies who came together at The Consumer Goods Forum (CIES at the time) agreed that consumer trust needed to be strengthened and maintained through a safer supply chain. GFSI was launched as a non-profit-making foundation in 2000, to achieve this through the harmonization of food safety standards that would reduce audit duplication throughout the supply chain. At the time, there was no existing scheme that could be qualified as “global” that could be adopted by all. So GFSI began benchmarking—developing a model to determine equivalency between existing food safety schemes, while retaining industry flexibility and choice.
The Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) is no longer just a benchmarking organization. While this remains one of its key activities, its collaborative approach to food safety brings together international food safety experts from the entire food supply chain to share knowledge and promote a harmonized approach to managing food safety across the industry. GFSI is managed by an industry-driven GFSI Board of Directors and supported by The Consumer Goods Forum Board of Directors. The daily management of GFSI is undertaken by The Consumer Goods Forum, an independent global network for consumer goods retailers and manufacturers. It serves the CEOs and senior management of nearly 400 members in more than 150 countries. (Extracted from mygfsi.com.)
The industry has always considered food safety to be an important factor in mitigating risk, and recent incidents related to food safety have led customers, consumers, and the U.S. government to demand more control of hazards to make food safer. Thus, said Vel Pillay, food safety program manager for the Americas for Lloyd’s Register Quality Assurance (LRQA), third-party certification is seen as an impartial mechanism to help achieve this objective. This is particularly true of GFSI-benchmarked standards and schemes, which are becoming the global norm for promoting and maintaining food safety across the industry, he added.
Patricia Hottel, McCloud Services technical director, has seen an increase in the number of GFSI-based audits performed in client facilities. These are most commonly driven by the clients of the food processing facility, with some of the larger retail and restaurant chains requiring these audits, she said.
The increase driven by major retailers has been most notable in the last four years, according to Prevendar. However, the pressure is also being seen moving down the supply chain, as manufacturers require their own suppliers to be certified to GFSI-benchmark standards. Additionally, the media has helped reinforce the importance of having food safety plans in place.
Rhonda Wellik, CEO of Cert ID, has also seen certification to a GFSI-benchmarked standard as steady, however, she said, facilities tend to wait until a buyer requires certification. Retailers also influence the growing acceptance of GFSI by supporting its efforts and requiring suppliers to obtain certification.
Has FSMA had an effect on companies seeking certification? If so, in what way?
Although Wellik has not seen FSMA as having an effect on companies seeking certification, he did note that GFSI certification could better align a facility to meet FSMA requirements for traceability.
Even though retailers and manufacturers are the primary drivers of certification to GFSI-benchmarked standards, Prevendar stated, there are parallels between FSMA and certification to these standards. Once the rules are released, companies operating within the global food supply chain will know whether they need to step up their food safety efforts to meet the new legislation.
What has been the impact of the highly published recalls of companies that had previously scored well on audits (PCA, Jensen Farms, Sunland, etc.)?
Hottel sees these recalls as having significant impact on the rise in GFSI audits, with GFSI compliant programs created in response to the food safety inadequacies seen in recent years. GFSI audit schemes include features that can help tighten up food safety programs, such as auditors having additional power to withhold certification and require program changes before certificates are issued, and utilization of integrated pest management programs, including sanitation and structural-deficiency correction. Additionally, she said, auditors have been called upon to testify in cases where there were acceptable audits but serious food safety incidents occurred after the audit, which has to have an effect on the auditors as they visit facilities.
Third-party audits are one of many assessment tools (such as ongoing monitoring, testing, and a facility’s own internal audits) designed to help a company identify areas that need improvement and deliver on its commitment to food safety, quality, and responsibility, Prevendar responded. Recalls, in particular, bring to light gaps in food safety, and, as a result, all of these assessment tools, as well as food safety best practices in general, are improved and made more rigorous to prevent future food recalls.
Highly publicized recalls have contributed to reduced consumer confidence in the safety of food supply chains and a growing awareness of potential dangers if hazards are not controlled in an effective way, Pillay responded. Because of this, he sees the use of process-based assessments and audits that focus on management systems as providing a more thorough, objective look at whether there are processes in place to ensure food safety than do scored audits and inspections—for which there is potential to focus on the numbers rather than on identifying and addressing non-conformance issues that can result in a system breakdown or consumer risk.
Is technology having an impact on desire for or means of certification? If so, how?
Science and technology continue to play a role in the increasing demand for certification, particularly information technology, Prevendar stated. For example, CDC’s PulseNet quickly identifies illness clusters, which allows it to trace foodborne illness outbreaks to a particular product. This has placed greater accountability on food manufacturers and sellers and driven attention to certification as a means to improve food safety systems and reduce risk.
FDA: A Mandate to Strengthen the Auditing System
The following remarks are excerpted from remarks made by FDA Deputy Commissioner for Foods Michael Taylor at the Global Food Safety Conference in February, 2012.
“The Global Food Safety Initiative is a critically important leader in food safety. For over a decade, GFSI has been advancing food safety by acting on one key idea, which is that the fundamental basis for food safety in today’s global food system is active food safety and supply chain management by the food industry.
“Like GFSI, Congress and FDA know that rigorous, objective private audits can add significant food safety value and thereby complement oversight by public regulators. But we also recognize that rigor and objectivity cannot be taken for granted. That, of course, is part of the motivation for the pioneering work GFSI has done to strengthen the private audit system. And Congress has given FDA a mandate to build on this work by establishing an Accredited Third-Party Certification Program.
“As we build our new import system, we want to work closely with GFSI and build on the foundation you have established for effective and credible certification programs. I know that GFSI and its members have a strong commitment to continuous improvement, as clearly reflected in the sixth edition of the GFSI Guidance Document, released in January 2011. The technical working groups you have assembled are tackling many of the most important topics that FDA faces in developing its third-party program.”
With GFSI-compliant audits heavily based on proper recordkeeping and written documentation, technology plays an important role in facilitating compliance with the GFSI standards, Hottel noted. Having electronic means of recording and utilizing data can help a company meet requirements for performing trend analysis.
Are companies including their certifications in their marketing efforts for consumers? Do you believe consumers seek certified companies or understand what it means?
Wellik noted that consumers are generally unaware of the Global Food Safety initiative and third-party certification. With the exception of level 3 SQF certification which allows the use of a seal on the packaging to indicate certification status, GFSI is not a product certification, so consumers do not have “at the shelf” access to such information, she explained, adding that her company has seen very little promotion of certification initiative through it certified sites.
However, Prevendar responded, companies are highlighting certifications such as organic, gluten-free, and non-GMOs in their marketing efforts. Additionally an independent survey, conducted on behalf of NSF, found that the percentage of consumers seeking independent certifications is increasing, with 45% of consumers looking for certification marks when shopping.
Many companies do, however, tend to market certification to GFSI-benchmarked standards to their supply-chain partners and retailers, Prevendar added. They do so as a means of communicating their compliance to purchasing requirements and commitment to food safety and quality. In many ways, he added, certification to global food safety initiative-benchmarked standards is a ticket to doing business in the global marketplace.
Although consumers are unaware of the initiative, they may appreciate the efforts behind a GFSI certification if provided with the information, Wellik said.
Although some companies do market their certification, Pillay does not believe that the average consumer understands the certification process, he said. More work needs to be done by industry and industry groups to educate consumers on the merits of certification, he said, adding that GFSI has been at the forefront of creating awareness and highlighting the merits of harmonization in the certification process and has been instrumental in educating stakeholders.
What other trends are you seeing in the food and beverage processing industry as relates to certification and standards compliance?
Along with food safety certification, many companies are now pursuing multiple certifications, such as organic and gluten-free, Prevendar noted. Thus, the number and variety of audits can become quite burdensome and lead to what the industry is calling “audit tourism.” For this reason, there has been an increasing trend toward the bundling of multiple audits to reduce production disruptions and costs while still demonstrating compliance to all.
As relates to pest management, greater flexibility in equipment placement and standards for set spacing has been a trend for several years, Hottel said, noting that this can benefit food processors through the reduction of unnecessary equipment and increase in focus on areas where pest pressures are the greatest. Pest trend analysis and documentation of response has received greater emphasis in recent years. Measuring pest trends, responding to trends, and documenting the response and results of the actions taken must all be recorded, which Hottel sees as a positive change for the industry.
With many multi-nationals now requiring suppliers to meet GFSI-recognized standards or schemes, Pillay anticipates demand for the services of certification bodies to continue to grow. Additionally, he said, there is a concentrated effort by multi-nationals and GFSI to educate the small and less developed (from a food safety perspective) organizations in food safety. One such example is GFSI’s Capacity Building Program, which enables a company to internally assess its food safety program and strengthen its system.
What does this all mean to the food/beverage processing plant and the industry?
If you work within the global food safety supply chain, you must have an effective food safety plan in place, Prevendar said. Certification to a global food safety standard has emerged as the most credible and widely accepted method of demonstrating this.
Although GFSI certification is increasing, there is some reluctance because the concept is not fully understood, especially that of third-party certification, Wellik said. But, GFSI certification can be of vast benefit, with facilities that have maintained certification over several years reporting that they are experiencing a reduction in customer complaints, need for reworked product, and improved efficiency. It is essential that all players in the food industry understand the principles of GFSI, so education and awareness for all stakeholders are key to building acceptance.
GFSI has helped to eliminate redundancy, confusion, and duplication in audits, Pillay said. The success of GFSI-recognized schemes may be attributed to its technical working groups made up of food safety specialists from around the world who help ensure that audit schemes and protocols better manage food safety risks. The mantra of these groups is that food safety is noncompetitive and food safety information should be shared among professionals.
With all this, however, consumer confidence is still not where it should be, largely because the average consumer is not aware of the work being done to better control hazards and mitigate risks, Pillay responded. There is also a lack of understanding among consumers that, although the U.S. government is responsible for monitoring and regulating food safety, each individual food manufacturer is responsible for ensuring that processes are in place to mitigate risks, and independent certification can assist in the effort to achieve better quality and safer food supply chains through certification and assessment services.
Because of the lack of understanding, he said, there is a need for more education of the public, and a need for the industry, U.S. government, and consumer groups to work together to promote a better understanding of the allocation of responsibilities of food safety. The onus should be on the industry to create a robust system, the government to ensure compliance, and consumers to understand that relationship.
The author is Editor of QA magazine. She can be reached at email@example.com.