Making Sense of Third Party Food Safety Certification

By: Dr. Luke Grocholl, Regulatory Affairs Expert, Sigma-Aldrich Flavors & Fragrances

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Food safety certification is not a legal requirement, but has become an industry standard for flavor ingredient suppliers. Third party certification helps organizations align their supply chains with global food safety standards and adjust to changing regional requirements. The myriad of different food safety certifications schemes can be confusing, however, and not all food safety standards are the same.

Third party food safety certification is nothing new. Increased globalization drives the need for an internationally focused certificate that’s well aligned with most common regional requirements. In order to establish a common certification requirement, the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) formed in 2000 with a mission to deliver safe foods worldwide through continual improvement of food safety. The GFSI board set about establishing criteria for food safety that aligned with global standards. They reviewed the food safety certification schemes available and determined which met their requirements. Today GFSI recognizes over a dozen food safety certification schemes for different types of establishments in the food industry, ranging from approved certification schemes for the farming of fish to certificates for manufacturing food packaging.

The most appropriate GFSI approved certification schemes for the flavor industry are BRC from  the British Retail Consortium,  Food Safety System Certification 22000 (FSSC 22000), and SQF from the Safe Quality Food institute. These certificates all establish requirements broad enough for operations that manage non-perishable and non-agricultural food ingredients yet provide enough detail to help ensure food safety. These schemes all require continual improvement of food safety systems. These three food certification schemes all integrate the HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points) concept. GFSI recognizes HACCP as a required element of a food safety program. Under HACCP, the food handling/manufacturing process is mapped out and hazards at each step in the process are identified. Control points are established for each step to eliminate or reduce to acceptable levels of the identified hazards. A critical control point is also established, typically at the final step where food safety is controlled and tested.

The BRC food standard focusses on food safety with a strong emphasis on the review of processes. BRC also covers overall quality systems and product quality, but the emphasis is on the operations that impact food safety. A BRC scheme is also very prescriptive, and it may be difficult to align with different types of operations. As part of the certification process, a grading criterion is established to help organizations benchmark their processes. Grade of A or B shows a strong food safety system, though C and D grades are still acceptable with revisits or surveillance audits. They also offer “plus” grades (i.e. A+, B+, etc.) awarded during unannounced audits.

As part of their audit approach, BRC also reviews an organization's food safety system for legality and exposure to fraud. This is a very good addition for high-risk industries within the food industry.

Unlike BRC or FSSC 22000, SQF has three grades. SQF 1 establishes food safety controls, but focuses primarily on low-risk operations. SQF 1 is not a GFSI recognized food safety scheme. SQF 2 builds off of the food safety controls established by SQF 1 and adds elements such as a HACCP plan. SQF 3 further integrates a quality management system with the food safety requirements. GFSI recognizes and benchmarks both SQF 2 and SQF 3.

Because of the staggered levels of SQF certification, new organizations or organizations establishing their first certified food safety system may choose SQF. They can establish and then build from an SQF 1 scheme to a full SQF 3 food safety, HACCP, and quality management system. SQF systems can be somewhat disjointed, however, as they treat food safety and product quality separately. Like BRC, SQF does offer a scoring that may help some firms track their foods safety system and compare it against others in the industry. For the most part, SQF is not as prescriptive as BRC, allowing for a greater flexibility to integrate into established practices.

FSSC 22000 is based on the ISO 22000 standards including the ISO 22002 technical specification on prerequisite programs for food manufacturing as well as HACCP. FSSC 22000 is a good fit for organizations with an established quality management system and integrates very well with ISO 9001. Like ISO 9001, FSSC 22000 focuses not only on processes, but also on the whole food safety management system including management commitment.

Since FSSC 22000 is based off an ISO scheme it is developed by an independent organization. Also, it integrates very well with organization quality management systems and allows for an easy fit of other ISO-based systems such as ISO 14001 (environmental management). It is designed so that it can be applied to a variety of organizations without being overly prescriptive, while still focusing on food safety and management commitment.

When determining the best certification for a firm, organizations should compare the GFSI schemes to determine which fits best for the nature of their business. The three schemes described above all offer their own advantages, but the barriers to implementing them will vary based on the organization. Since all three schemes have elements of process improvement they help firms maintain strong food safety systems. The best food safety schemes include not only processes that include food safety, but also systems that improve product quality, continual improvement and management buy-in.