AIBI-CS has been working on ensuring that the professional that goes into a site and performs an audit is well qualified.

Setting sights on solid schemes and services

The past seven months have provided an opportunity for new learnings for Stephanie Lopez, president of AIB International Certification Services. Ms. Lopez succeeded Gary Skrdlant last fall after spending time as AIB International’s vice-president for food safety services innovation.

But make no mistake, Ms. Lopez is no rookie. With 22 years of experience in the food and beverage industry, including three years primarily focused on GFSI schemes, she was well equipped to take on the new role. That role includes oversight of the GFSI audit programs (i.e. BRC, SQF, IFS and FSSC 22000) offered under AIBI-CS.

“My role is to ensure that we’re in compliance with what the scheme owners require because these are licensed audits, they are not proprietary to our organization,” she said. “We are required to maintain accreditation to ISO standards and get audited to those, and then in combination with that ensure we’re providing the best possible audits to clients in terms of pricing, consistency, and quality of delivery of the audits.”

Ms. Lopez said AIBI-CS is well positioned in its core categories, which are grain-based foods, dairy, beverage, food contact packaging and distribution. The organization has GFSI auditors in 13 countries and is currently conducting GFSI audits in 31 countries.

“What makes us well equipped to do the audits, in addition to just simply having the personnel in region, is the investment we put into our auditors to getting them qualified,” she said. “By the time an auditor is qualified to do a GFSI audit through AIBI-CS we’ve invested approximately $50,000 in their training to get signed off. This includes coursework, examinations, shadowing existing auditors and being witnessed as they are being signed off.

“We really need to be sure they are able to apply what they’ve shown through a written exam on the floor as well. They also are heavily evaluated for not just their technical knowledge, but what you might consider their soft skills. Are they able to explain to the client why it’s a non-compliance, for example. Are they able to follow audit trails or do they take the first piece of evidence and stop there? Those are the types of things we incorporate into our training.”

One of the areas AIBI-CS has been working on from a client perspective is ensuring that the professional that goes into a site and performs an audit is well qualified and also that the support staff working behind the scenes is also top notch and can ensure things like quick report turnaround time. To accommodate its clients’ needs, Ms. Lopez said AIBI-CS has been loading information onto its web site so that clients have instant access to data relative to their GFSI audits, 24/7 wherever they are in the world.

Ms. Lopez said AIBI-CS has expanded its capabilities over the past year. At the start of 2014, the organization was able to offer three major schemes: BRC, SQF and FSSC 22000. It has since added a fourth scheme: IFS.

Stephanie Lopez is president of AIB International Certification Services.

GFSI audits also grew by 8% last year, and while this growth rate was slightly lower than the previous year, Ms. Lopez pointed out it was not due to the quality of AIBI-CS’s offerings.

“We had quite a few new clients come on and we did have some existing clients transition away,” she said. “The feedback that we received was that we were providing exceptional service but it was a price point issue for them. That is one of the challenges we face with GFSI is that it’s highly competitive from a cost perspective. One of those reasons is that the majority of our competitors use contractors, and we find there is value in using our full-time food safety professionals to do the audits.”

Looking ahead to the remainder of 2015, Ms. Lopez said AIBI-CS will continue to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of its GFSI audits, in addition to looking to expand into a couple of geographies, like Japan and China.

“We have a partner in the Japanese Institute of Baking we work with for our GMP audits, and we are now bringing them on board with offering GFSI audits,” she said. “So expanding our GFSI audit capabilities into Japan with local Japanese auditors is on target for this year.

“The other area we are working diligently on is expanding our efforts in China. We are currently doing a few GFSI audits, but there are several unique restrictions that the Chinese government puts on doing those audits in country with local auditors. We currently don’t have the infrastructure to meet those requirements.”

A previous effort to acquire a certification body in China that would have eased some of the barriers to entry in the market has been terminated, but Ms. Lopez was resolute in her determination to make a mark in the region.

“We definitely want to be able to service the Chinese market, particularly with the multinationals,” she said. “We’re just trying to navigate what the additional requirements are besides what we are used to doing from an accreditation standpoint.”