Forum Offers Guidance to Food Safety Professionals Wrestling with Higher Standards

The stress balls in the conference goodie bags probably were a good idea: considering the uncertainty surrounding third-party audit certifications and future compliance with the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), food safety and quality assurance managers could use a stress buster these days.

About 100 industry professionals gathered this week in suburban Chicago for the Food Safety Exchange, an event sponsored by Mettler Toledo and geared toward food company managers who are responsible for guiding their plants through food-safety certification programs like SQF, BRC and FSSC 22000. Those are the standards under the umbrella of the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI), the retailer-driven effort to raise the safety bar across the supply chain. The Food Safety Exchange's speaker lineup was heavily populated by the firms deploying no-nonsense auditors to evaluate plant procedures and demand proof that a company is correcting problems and following the procedures they say they have to prevent future product contaminations.

Until now, food processors have been free to ignore auditor recommendations to correct minor safety infractions, accepting deductions on their next audit in lieu of repairing floor cracks and other noncompliances. Those days are over, representatives of the audit companies made clear. Even the most minor noncompliance must be addressed in a timely manner, and if not, the facility will not be recertified, speakers from certification bodies such as SAI Global and ASI made clear. They are the agents of the certification ownersâ€"brands like SQF and BRCâ€"and their first loyalty is to those brands, not the food company paying for the audit. "It's a partnership (with food firms), but we own (the certification)," emphasized Rena Pierami, head of Silliker's audit division.

Attention to detail is a fundamental requirement and a leading cause of audit failures. For example, a company will begin sourcing a new ingredient or working with a new supplier and fail to amend its documented food-safety plan. Some companies have had to order product recalls after an auditor spotted an ingredient containing an allergen that was not accounted for in the documentation, Pierami says. Similarly, food-safety training might miss a handful of employees who were absent when training events were held. "The programs are adequate, but people have been missed," resulting in a noncompliance, noted Tony Petrucci, BVC's food business development manager. Also, companies will establish protocols for cleaning a piece of equipment but fail to train operators to demonstrate the procedure when auditors challenge them with the question, "How do you do this?"

The comment period for the proposed FSMA rules has been extended to September, and implementation is unlikely to begin before 2015, but the experts suggest that satisfying GFSI sanctioned standards will provide a solid foundation for FSMA compliance. Confusion surrounds a requirement that science-based safety reviews be performed by qualified individuals; even experts are unsure what those qualifications might be.

The law will require a written recall plan, and companies are advised to perform serious mock recalls and form broad-based food-safety teams to address plant needs. "We go into USDA plants and get, 'Do you want us to show you what we tell USDA we do or show you what we actually do?'" commented LeAnn Chuboff, senior technical director at SQF. "Hopefully we won't get that" at food plants subject to FSMA.