Robert Garfield, Chief Food Safety Officer and SVP, Food Marketing Institute
For the food industry, food safety management has become more than an “acquired taste”. Robust programs are a pillar for many companies within the industry, however, there is still much to do. Management commitment and establishment of a strong food safety culture within the organization are keys to success of these programs, and a top-down, bottom-up commitment can significantly lower brand identity risk and costly market recalls. Moreover, a well-defined and implemented program saves resources and can help to streamline operations.
Food safety has always been a passion and concern of the professionals whose jobs center on protection of the food manufactured or grown for consumer consumption. However, historically food safety programs have not been a key element of concern for a corporation's most important senior executives. This has dramatically changed in the last 10 years.
Twenty years ago most food industry association boards were hard pressed to support stronger regulatory oversight of the industry. Yet in 2009 a broad coalition of food industry associations and consumer groups supported the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).
“Food safety is a culture that must be developed within a company, and like other disciplines it must be managed ”
FSMA, passed by Congress in 2011, was the first major advancement in food safety laws in 70 years. A combination of powerful regulatory requirements, advances in isolating sources of microbial contamination through whole gene sequencing and pervasive media attention, have all contributed to elevate the importance of food safety management and brand protection to the corporate level. In 2000, food retailers searching for a way to manage food safety developed the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) through the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF). The private assessment process was designed to address the safety of food products introduced into their markets. Accredited food safety management programs were first benchmarked in 2003. Since then the programs benchmarked under GFSI must meet the leading edge of technical, scientific and compliance requirements every 3 years. The independence of the GFSI program; those that conduct facility or farm assessments and the organizations that accredit the program helps to advance the integrity of the system.
Food safety is a culture that must be developed within a company, and like other disciplines it must be managed. Heightened consumer demand for increased food safety assurances moves down the chain with retailers and service providers asking suppliers to provide verifiable proof that robust food safety control systems have been effectively implemented. These systems must be properly validated and show evidence of continuous monitoring procedures. Unlike inspections these programs attempt to get beyond a “checklist mentality” and encompass employee interviews, record reviews and management commitment evaluations.
How do these programs work? In simple terms a supplier chooses a GFSI recognized program (there are nine programs worldwide benchmarked by GFSI). Once they decide on a program, a company either evaluates its operation internally or hires an independent consultant to assess its food safety management readiness versus the criteria enumerated in the recognized program. The next step, the one that takes the most time and resources, encompasses the need to strengthen or change practices and procedures within the facility. This part of the process can often necessitate physical changes as well. When ready, the facility hires a certification body (CB) to conduct the initial assessment. Although licensed to the GFSI program, the CB acts independently and has no other ties to the recognized program. The auditors who assess the facilities readiness and management practices must meet strict competencies as outlined and credentialed by the recognized program. If they pass the assessment, the facility receives a certificate that is valid for one year. It must repeat the process each year to maintain the certificate.
Independence of the assessment process and continuous improvement of each recognized program remain key distinctions for the third-party accredited food safety management system. Indeed, critical elements such as environmental monitoring for pathogenic bacteria; allergen management; unannounced audits; and supplier evaluation are a few of program attributes that will continue to garner momentum for GFSI-rooted programs. It’s important to note that third party accredited food safety management is not a “magic bullet.” Instead, it takes hard work and commitment from all parties to make the system work: GFSI, program holders, CBs, auditors, suppliers and buyers. With the right partners and resources the food value chain can continue to assure grocery customers that they have the safest food supply on earth.