Selecting a Food Safety Consultant DOs and DON’Ts

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When a reputable consultant works in partnership with a committed plant team, success is achievable, but it requires the appropriate due diligence.

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June 15, 2012

I have been in many plants recently that have been overwhelmed by the requirements to obtain GFSI certification and have opted to hire a consultant to help them. However, more often than not, this has backfired. I attribute these failures to the following:

  • The plant not making a commitment to the program and hiring it out and/or
  • Hiring a consultant who is not truly an expert in the given field.

There are many reasons that a company may hire a consultant to assist with food safety. The company may be seeking someone who brings technical knowledge that the existing staff does not have, such as hiring a microbiological consultant. It may be seeking someone who has specific knowledge of a new audit scheme, such as BRC, SQF, or FSSC 22000.

However, there are some significant pitfalls that can occur when using a consultant. These include relying on the consultant to establish the programs or selecting a consultant that does not have appropriate knowledge.

A reputable consultant will act as a facilitator for program development. The consultant may be an expert in many different fields, but he or she is not an expert in the most important topic – your operation.

During the selection process, ask these questions of potential consultants:


Will you write our programs for us?
The consultant should not write the programs. Programs written by the consultant are not likely to accurately reflect the operation. Rather, the consultant should act as a facilitator. He should help the plant identify the type of information that needs to be addressed and the plant should articulate its information in the procedures and policies.


Will you guarantee a passing audit?

The consultant should not guarantee a passing audit. The audit depends on the implementation and execution of the programs, which is largely out of the consultant’s control.


Will you participate in the audit to help us answer questions?
There should be nothing in the programs to which plant personnel cannot speak. The programs should represent the actual plant programs; therefore, the plant personnel, not the consultant, are the experts.


What credentials do you have?
Consultants should be able to produce evidence that they are an expert in their area. Examples are:

  • Approved trainer by International HACCP Alliance.
  • Approved trainer/consultant/auditor for BRC, SQF, or FSSC 22000. (Check the websites for approved trainers.)

“I’ve taken a class” does not qualify the consultant as an expert!


What resources do you have available to you?
Hiring a larger consulting firm often means that there are additional resources available to the plant through the consultant. The larger firm may have experts in areas of labeling or product testing. Larger consulting firms are also more likely to invest in ongoing training of their consultants to ensure their information and expertise is current.


What Success Looks Like
When a reputable consultant works in partnership with a committed plant team, success is achievable. The consultant will work with a multi-disciplinary team, not just a single point of contact. He or she will provide guidance to plant personnel as they establish policies and procedures.

The consultant may provide training for all personnel against established policies and procedures. At a minimum, the consultant should train the food safety team in the ongoing maintenance of the food safety programs, including:

  • What to do if there is a program failure (e.g., infestation, complaint).
  • What to do if there is a program change (e.g., new ingredient, new piece of equipment).
  • How to audit the programs to ensure they are fully implemented and effective.

The plant may need to allocate additional resources, such as personnel and equipment. The consultant and team should establish appropriate timelines, keeping in mind that effective change does not happen overnight.


Other Thoughts
While the GFSI audits are largely based on documentation, hiring an expert to write your programs will not lead to success because it is highly unlikely that the documentation is in agreement with practices and the food safety team’s knowledge.

One of the measurements of GFSI-benchmarked audits is whether or not the programs that are evaluated are considered sustainable. If the programs are based on the expertise of a single person (consultant or employee), then they cannot be deemed sustainable.


DO

  • Use external resources to improve the knowledge base of your team.
  • Interview consultants before hiring them.
  • Require credentials from consultants.
  • Provide a team to work with the consultant.
  • Arrange for the consultant to provide training.


DON’T

  • Hire consultants based on price alone. With consultants, you will likely get what you pay for.
  • Hire a consultant that promises unrealistic results.
  • Rely on the consultant to write programs for you.
  • Rely on the consultant to represent you during the audit.

 


The author is Vice President, Food Safety Education, AIB International.