POWER Engineers

Now, more than ever, food safety is top of mind for bakeries and snack manufacturing plants. The topic is everywhere — at industry trade shows, in staff meetings and training sessions, and, of course, in these pages. But the abundance of third-party audit systems, many of which are required by various retailers and other customers of baked foods, has been weighing on companies’ time and bottom lines for years.

Enter the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI). It benchmarks food safety-related schemes against its guidance document and recognizes programs that meet its requirements. Its aim is to ensure consistent results no matter which recognized third-party audit a company uses. Such consistency should reduce the hours and dollars spent to satisfy various customers’ different requirements to make certain no part of a supply chain will contribute to health and safety hazards once a product reaches consumers’ hands.

Retailers such as Wal-Mart and Target require that all suppliers be certified by a GFSI-recognized standard, and companies may have a hard time participating in the global marketplace without such certification.

In an exclusive interview with Baking & Snack, Tom Clark offered his advice on navigating the tricky waters of compliance and regulation. With a bachelor of science in agriculture with a major in meat science from Ohio State University, Mr. Clark served as regulatory and formulations manager at Shearer’s Foods, Inc., Brewster, OH, for eight years. In early 2010, Mr. Clark shifted his focus to his own company, Food Management Systems, which specializes in helping food manufacturing companies prepare for GFSI-recognized audits. The company also consults on quality system design and implementation, regulatory compliance, laboratory management, policy and procedures development, and the design and delivery of training programs. More information about the company is available at www.foodmanagementsystems.net.

Baking & Snack: What is the Global Food Safety Initiative?

Tom Clark: The Global Food Safety Initiative, coordinated by the Consumer Goods Forum (CIES), was launched in May 2000. The GFSI Foundation Board, a retailer-driven group with manufacturer advisory members, provides the strategic direction and oversees the daily management of GFSI.

In general, the GFSI program provides a unifying structure to provide a standardized basis by which independent certification bodies can evaluate the effectiveness of a food manufacturing operation. It began with the goal, “once certified, accepted everywhere.” Without a doubt, GFSI has made great strides in the last few years in reaching its initial goal. Certification under the GFSI format enables suppliers to provide their customers with an objective, widely respected validation that the food was processed and handled according to the highest possible standards at all levels of the supply chain.

What GFSI-recognized programs are best-suited for US baking and snack manufacturing companies?

The two GFSI standards most common in US bakeries are Safety Quality Food (SQF) and British Retail Consortium (BRC). SQF offers two different standards, or codes: SQF 1000 for primary producers (farmers) and SQF 2000 for manufacturers (processing plants).

In 1998, BRC developed and introduced the BRC Technical Standard and Protocol for companies supplying retailer branded food products. The standard was developed to assist retailers in their fulfillment of legal obligations and protection of the consumer by providing a common basis for audits.

All GFSI-recognized standards are based on the same GFSI criteria, which makes them similar in what they evaluate as well as the rigor that they use to make the evaluation. While there are differences in how the actual audits are structured, the essence of the questions being asked by auditors for each standard is much the same. This shouldn’t be a surprise since one of the intents of GFSI was to develop a widely accepted set of evaluation criteria that would help eliminate the ever-increasing confusion regarding the various audit options that have been made available by a host of audit companies.

My best advice would be that any company seeking a GFSI certification should do a little research to understand the basics of how each standard operates and then choose the one that seems to best meet its situation.

What do companies have to do to be certified in these schemes? What are some basic steps involved?
The first thing a company has to do is make an executive level decision to provide the resources — people, time and finances — necessary to achieve the certification. After that, it must identify and empower a company associate to be the main point person. I like to think of this person as the Coordinating Champion, whose function is to keep the certification process moving and keep the communication lines open between top management and the production facility. This Coordinating Champion needs to become the company’s resident expert in all aspects of achieving and then maintaining its GFSI-recognized certification.

Next, a company should review the various GFSI standards and select one that seems the best fit for its situation and need. Then it selects a third-party audit company, the certification body, that is certified to conduct the GFSI standard. A couple of good questions a company would probably want to ask when trying to identify a potential certification body include an estimated cost of the audits and the approximate lead time, or the availability of auditors certified to do the audit for the company’s specific food industry. Individual auditors are only certified for industries for which they have great expertise and experience, so often they must be booked well in advance of your actual audit date.

The company should then address all audit criteria detailed in the GFSI standard it has selected and seek professional help to assist in the preparation process. A variety of GFSI-standard-specific training seminars are offered around the country. In addition, consultants can be utilized by companies that desire more individualized assistance.

Many companies elect to have a pre-audit conducted by their certification body that doesn’t count for certification but is normally extremely beneficial in helping the companies better understand the gaps in their audit preparation processes. The pre-audit can also give them a feel for the high level of rigor that they must demonstrate to show their execution against the standard. For most companies, this pre-audit is a very eye-opening experience because it often digs much deeper than the company may have experienced during previous audits. The next step is to set up the audit dates with the certification body. The audit will typically involve multiple consecutive days as determined by the size and complexity of the operation. Most audits run at least two and a half days.

After the audit, a company should follow up with corrections for all nonconformities observed during the audit and continue to work on maintaining and improving existing programs as part of the company’s ongoing continuing improvement program.

Can you give some examples of common mistakes bakeries and snack plants make in trying to
get certified?

Trying to do just enough to get by. While this approach may have proved adequate with other less rigorous audits, it is a recipe for failure when seeking a GFSI-type audit. A corollary to the above point is not having the full, visible and tangible support of top management.

Another mistake is setting an audit date based on pressure from a customer rather than on what is realistically possible for the company to achieve. Also hazardous is not designating a point person who will act as the Coordinating Champion to provide oversight not only to the initial preparation process but the ongoing continuing improvement, which is critical and expected for subsequent audits.

Insufficient documentation, poorly created forms and procedures as well as incomplete record completion are other common pitfalls.

What happens if a bakery or snack manufacturer fails to be certified by the GFSI-recognized program of its choosing?

Most obvious is the fact that a company can no longer state that it is GFSI-certified, which will, if not corrected, preclude it from doing business with those customers that required it in the first place.

The results of the GFSI audit are not part of the public domain, and therefore, a company must grant permission for the audit results to be released to any of its customers. However, it goes without saying that a company should inform its customers that require a GFSI audit if and when its certification
status changes.

The various standards detail the steps for a re-audit, but simply stated, a company wouldn’t want to go through the expense of a re-audit until it was confident that all of its systems were operating properly.

This story is sponsored by POWER Engineers, which has one of the most comprehensive teams of engineers and specialists serving the baking and snack industry. As an extension of its clients' engineering teams, the company provides program management, integrated solutions and full facility design for the baking and snack industry. Learn more at www.powereng.com/food.