Options Abound for Food and Beverage Plant Audits

Third-party plant audits are more rigorous, but attracting qualified auditors remains a challenge.

By Kevin T. Higgins, Managing Editor

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What’s the fastest growing segment of the food industry? It isn’t free-from food or boutique distilleries: It’s plant audits by independent parties.

Consider NSF International, the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based public health and safety standards organization. NSF became involved in food-plant audits in 2001, when it acquired the product safety firm Cook & Thurber. With the U.S. arrival of the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) programs in 2009, NSF embarked on an aggressive acquisition and organic growth initiative. In 2014, the NSF Food Safety division generated revenues of $27.3 million, mostly from audits and up 44 percent in two years.

Plant audits generally and food safety audits in particular are a fact of plant-ops life. Proprietary standards from Cook & Thurber, AIB International and other organizations have been around since the 1990s, but they are gradually being swept aside by open standards under the GFSI umbrella. Those include SQF, BRC and FSSC 22000.

About 30,000 U.S. food facilities have been certified under those standards, estimates Mike Robach, Cargill’s vice president-corporate food safety & regulatory affairs and current chairman of the GFSI Board (www.mygfsi.com). With 160,000 food-handling facilities registered with FDA, there’s still a long way to go, but he is encouraged by the progress and, more importantly, the improved performance and fewer audits at food plants that have undergone the certification process.

GFSI had its start in Europe, where retailers pressured food companies to undergo more rigorous reviews under standards that would be accepted by all, reducing the need for customer audits. The concept gained U.S. traction in 2009, after a series of high-profile food poisoning events prompted Walmart to put processors on notice that it would demand GFSI certification as a condition of doing business.

E. coli H1:O71 in lettuce and salmonella in peanut paste from Peanut Corp. of America (PCA) accelerated erosion of public confidence in the food system. Today’s boom in start-up firms and non-conventional new products is at least partially the result of the backlash to prominent recalls and mass food poisonings.

Proprietary certifications are helpful to “less sophisticated enterprises” striving to meet emerging international food safety standards for the global supply chain, Robach allows, but at some point, those training wheels will come off. “The marketplace will determine which schemes (certifications) will survive and which won’t,” he says. With international retailers Amazon e-commerce, Tesco and Auchan recently joining Walmart, Wegmans and Kroger on the GFSI board, Robach believes support for GFSI from key customers, consumer groups and government agencies is cresting.

Canadian officials have signaled that GFSI standards meet or exceed those detailed in the Safe Food for Canadians Act, and the preventative controls and supplier verification requirements closely align with mandates in the U.S. Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). The expectation is that FDA will use GFSI certification as a risk-assessment tool, placing certified companies into a low-risk pool when determining which facilities to inspect.

Auditor competence is the system’s weak link. “It’s not an entry-level position anymore,” points out Lori Ernst, vice president-audit services at Food Safety Net Services (fsns.com), San Antonio, Texas. Recent retirees and young people with little industry experience are the nucleus of GMP and HACCP audit programs. Under standards like SQF and BRC, a minimum of five years industry experience plus two years of sector exposure, extensive training and unpaid participation in multiple plant audits are required.

To help prime the auditor supply pump, the Safe Quality Foods Institute in 2013 began offering 10 $3,000 scholarships to undergraduates in food and animal science to encourage them to pursue auditing careers. But thousands of young recruits are needed, and they must find appeal in a job requiring extensive travel.

Conflicts in self-policing

As the 2008 financial meltdown demonstrated, the Achilles heel of any business-driven self-policing is the rigor applied. Moody’s, Standard & Poors and Fitch rating agencies gave AAA ratings to the mortgage bonds issued by the banks that paid for the ratings, to disastrous effect.

Similarly, the PCA scandal occurred despite a “superior” rating from an auditor who also provided consulting services. To avoid similar problems, GFSI requires standards owners to monitor certification bodies’ activities and ensure firewalls are in place to prevent conflicts.

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