Electronic records, systems-based prevention programs, staff training, environmental swab tests — there are many ways to upgrade a company’s approach to food safety. Collectively, they constitute industry best practices.
Final rules for the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) are expected later this year, and while farmgate rules still are being sorted out, the shift to a preventive approach is consistent with international trends that have been building momentum for years. Food safety experts point to the independent third-party audits and certifications under the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) as the embodiment of best practices. One of those standards, BRC, cites “a commitment to share best practice to improve food safety” as being “the heart of the program.”
Safety audits are nothing new, but unlike AIB, Cook and Thurber and other prescriptive approaches of the past, the new breed of certified standards has ushered in “a much more formal approach to your programs, and you're audited against your own particular program,” explains Kris Middleton, a former auditor who currently serves as the manager of the AuditReady consulting program at Steritech, Charlotte, N.C. As a result, “There’s much more buy-in and understanding your system, documenting it and reviewing the results.”
Mad cow disease outbreaks in the British Isles beginning in 1986 brought the need for higher operational standards to the fore. “Mad cow really drove the creation of FSMA and raised standards here” in the U.S., suggests Trish Meek, a biochemist and director of product strategy at Thermo Fisher Scientific in Philadelphia. “Today, there’s a much different expectation of how quickly a problem needs to be identified and action taken.”
Documentation remains the biggest challenge area in safety certification. Almost 20 percent of the 17,113 sites audited last year by BRC had nonconformities in documentation of cleaning procedures, easily the biggest area of deficiency. But it is a fundamental part of the process in elevating food safety from a basic checklist to a systems-based approach.
Doug Renfro, president of Renfro Foods Inc. in Fort Worth, Texas, credits a detail-oriented QA director for easing the documentation pain when his company sought certification under Safe Quality Food (SQF) Level 2, one of the GFSI-sanctioned standards. “We didn’t realize how much work it would involve, and it took a while to get up to speed,” Renfro recalls. Nonetheless, the three-year process helped elevate professionalism and improve the competitive position of the 75-year-old family firm.
Salsa and sauces are Renfro mainstays, with copacking accounting for 45 percent of its production of acidified, hot-filled products. One customer began nudging Renfro down the GFSI certification trail five years ago. Facility upgrades were the first priority, beginning with a drop down ceiling and much improved lighting in the 50,000-sq.-ft. building’s processing area. Rest room reconstruction, installation of stainless steel sinks and other upgrades brought capital costs to almost $400,000, Renfro estimates. Physical changes were merely preludes to more meaningful ones.
Creating a clean culture
After 70 years as a top-down organization, Renfro’s staff of 40 was skeptical when management signaled its intent to change the company culture. “We were moving from putting stuff in a jar and praying to [being] an organization that could meet the needs of more sophisticated copack clients,” Renfro half jokes. “It took about a year to get buy-in to a safety committee that’s really going to meet regularly.” Instead of delegating responsibility to a single person, it became a cross-functional mission, with maintenance, production and office staffers collaborating with QA.
Certification is paying off in competitive bidding situations. “Now that we have that in our quiver, it resonates with customers,” he maintains. “Competition ranges from people who are basically commercial kitchens all the way to giant food companies.” As more customers make stringent certification programs a prerequisite to order placement, the number of competitors who can bid a project is shrinking.