In maintaining food safety, a processor just doesn’t hope for the best. Monitoring is a requirement that ensures all steps are taken in food-safety procedures. And sometimes, you need another set of eyes to be certain those steps have been properly carried out.

One of the big initiatives in auditing in the past few years has been the development of a global auditing standard. Called the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI), the standard is meant to bring a commonality to audits done by third-party auditors so that any audits will cover the same topics and issues.

The initiative is coordinated by the Paris-based CIES — Food Business Forum and was launched in 2000. The effort is lead by the GFSI Foundation, a retailer-driven group, with manufacturer advisory members, and provides the strategic direction and oversees the daily management of the GFSI.

The objectives of the initiative are to maintain a benchmarking process for food-safety management schemes to work towards the convergence between food-safety standards, improve cost efficiency throughout the food supply chain via the common acceptance of GFSI recognized standards by retailers around the world, provide a unique international stakeholder platform for networking, knowledge exchange and the sharing of best food-safety practices and information.

Kraft Foods is among the manufacturers involved in the GFSI in the United States.

“Whether the ingredients are procured domestically or internationally, one of the basic tenets of our food-safety system is that all finished product must meet Kraft’s specifications for quality and food safety before it is released for sale,” says Cathy Pernu, spokeswoman for the Ill.-based company. “We also supply a continuing Pure Food Guaranty that covers all Kraft products.”

Pernu says the company’s auditing program is integral to its food-safety program. All of Kraft’s suppliers must meet its “Supplier Quality Expectations” and are audited before the company buys the ingredients. Across global operations, the company uses both internal and external auditors, depending on the circumstances. The auditing program is subject to continuous improvement, as the potential for improvement is identified.

Following the rules

Governing what audits contain and how they are done is the Codex Alimentarius Commission. Each nation that is a part of the Codex has its own committees and sends a representative to the commission each year. The Codex also has an impact on the World Trade Organization (WTO), working to equalize sanitary and phytosanitary measures, trade barriers and national laws in respect to food safety.

Mike Robach, the vice president of corporate food safety and regulatory affairs for Cargill Inc., spoke about third-party audits and certifications at the National Advisory Committee on Meat and Poultry Inspection held by the Food Safety and Inspection Service(FSIS) in August. Robach said during his presentation that the Codex is the law on food safety and the reference point for audits. He said the law was the industry’s best tool to compare and commoditize audits; unite and speak with authority on how audits are carried out and resist the proliferation of audits that won’t be comparable.

And any audit will cover the same basic areas: food safety, regulatory compliance and quality management. Food safety and regulations are set by the Codex and by national laws. There are few differences among audits on those topics simply because of the legal restrictions. With quality management, it’s a different story. That is negotiable and each audit can approach it in a different manner.

GFSI has three rules that directly affect U.S. audits — ownership, accreditation and qualifications. Under those rules, the audit standard must be public for anyone to audit, which rules out AIB, Silliker, NSF, and others, according to Robach. That doesn’t mean those companies’ audits don’t meet GFSI key audit criteria. Those audits are simply not benchmarked audits. Also, the audit bodies must be accredited to international standards and the auditor must be qualified to international standards.

The GFSI’s minimum requirements for an audit include general information such as company name, name of the certification body, audit dates, the food-safety management scheme, used and the scope of the audit among others. More specific information includes descriptions of the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) system in operations, details of certificates, an overview of the processes covered in the audit, and the conclusion of the results. A list of nonconformities is also a requirement under GFSI.

The GFSI’s Guidance Document, which is a benchmark for many audits both domestically and abroad, says that where scoring, ranking and grading systems are applied, they must be clearly explained by the Standard Owner. The audit report must clearly express where the site is in compliance, or not in compliance, with the standard. In the case where there’s a nonconformity is identified by the auditor, a clear and concise details of a non-conformance needs to be provided in the audit report.

For corrections of the nonconformities, there needs to be corrective action plans and evidence of implementation submitted for the certification body to verify that the applicant meets the requirement of the standard. Verification of the measures may take the form of more on-site assessment or of paperwork including updated procedures, records and photographs assessed by a technically competent member or group within the certification body. All evidence of corrective action must be returned, completed and verified within a timescale defined in the standard a company is audited under before certification can be awarded.

In the areas of food safety, according to the Guidance Document, categories have been identified. Any organization applying for accreditation or extension of scope should use those categories in their applications. The GFSI says that new food categories could emerge as food-safety standards are developed in developing countries. If such food products do not fit easily with already established categories, the new categories must be clearly defined.

The categories covered in the manufacturing of food include:
Manufacturing:
• Eggs
• Red Meat - chilled and frozen
• Poultry - chilled and frozen
• Fish - chilled and frozen
• Produce
• Dairy
• Meat products and preparations
• Fish products and preparations
• Ambient stable hermetically sealed packs
• Ready-to-eat foods
• Beverages
• Bakery and baked products
• Dried goods
• Confectionery
• Snacks and breakfast cereals
• Oils and fats
• Food ingredients

Certification bodies under GFSI must have systems and procedures in place to ensure that auditors conducting assessment meet the capabilities described in ISO 19001 and ISO 22003 with specific regard to audits against GFSI approved standards.

Each company can create its own audit as long as it follows the Codex, according to Robach. The Codex is public domain and free for any one to use. The issue comes in at the verification level of audits, where they’re branded.

The goal is to promote audit equivalency, according to Robach, based on a global supply chain document such as GFSI. Equivalency of audits should reduce redundancy and costs while giving suppliers a choice of equivalent audits to choose from and not a mandate to choose only one brand of audit.

Robach says that for audit equivalency, all the stakeholders are represented — industry, government, consumers and inter-governmental agencies. It should be based on science based standards, government recognition and oversight, a focus on systems such as HACCP and an accreditation system that can benchmark audits and certify the auditors.

Resources on the Web

The Web is full of resources on auditing and standards. Both American and overseas organizations have worked to establish standards for audits and create transparency in the process. Some good resources include:

CIES — The Food Business Forum: http://www.ciesnet.com/

Food Marketing Institute: http://www.fmi.org/

Food Safety and Inspection Service page on Codex Alimentarius: http://www.fsis.usda.gov/Codex_Alimentarius/index.asp