When it comes to playing in the big leagues, the price of admission requires much more than developing a trendy product, fancy packaging or a catchy merchandizing campaign. Major retailers and food service chains want their suppliers to put up or shut up and meet the new standards for food safety. It’s the cost of doing business today.

That’s why Gonnella Baking Co. and many others have invested big time in getting their bakeries that serve national accounts certified by the British Retail Consortium (BRC) and other programs recognized by the Global Food Safety Initiative. Sure, it’s all about managing risk, but when making a sales presentation in today’s competitive environment, it can be much more than that.

“Having BRC certification allows us to compete at a totally different level,” noted Tom Marcucci, Gonnella’s vice-president of sales and marketing.

Developing a food safety program means a change in the mentality and culture of a company, and it requires a commitment from the top down, according to Dan Herzog, Gonnella’s vice-president of corporate compliance for food safety. “We have full buy-in from top management down to all levels of Gonnella Baking Co.,” he said. “Without that buy-in, you aren’t going anywhere.”

Those resources mean investing in prerequisite programs that include employee training, improving infrastructure, developing internal audits, enacting root-cause analysis, establishing HACCP and writing proper documentation, just to name a few. “You need to have all of those in place to pass your BRC audits,” Mr. Herzog said.

Gonnella, he noted, had several of these programs active for more than a decade. Instead of relying on certificates of analysis for ingredients, for instance, the company vets its suppliers. “Our certified supplier program is paramount,” Mr. Herzog said. “We need to get out there and pursue and audit the facilities that we purchase from. The only way to determine your risk is to go out and audit your suppliers.”

In many ways, the BRC process ratcheted up what the company already had going for it.

“When you get this big customer who demands a new level of standards of performance from you — whether it’s quality of product, efficiency in sourcing of materials or other aspects of BRC — it makes your organization better,” Mr. Marcucci said. “You need to attain and maintain the new standard that the customer requires of you, or you do not have a shot of obtaining or holding onto that business. Once you achieve that level of an audit or BRC certification, it opens doors for you that otherwise would be closed. At first glance, it looks like a high hill to climb, but there’s a return on that investment in the end.”

In today’s environment, BRC and other food safety programs not only make operations better; they can make or break a deal.