Marie-Claude Quentin, Senior Technical Manager at the Global Food Safety Initiative, explains how it is troubleshooting issues of trust in auditing and certification processes.
With sudden and significant disruptions in the audit processes during the pandemic, third-party food safety certification has faced one of its most challenging times.
However, this period of disruption has served to highlight the significant and increasing threats that third-party food safety certification has faced for some time. For example: increasing difficulties in attracting and retaining auditors; and keeping the auditing process up to date with technological evolution.
The Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) has been involved in debates on these threats and has been mandated by its members to find transformational solutions to them.
Food safety community
GFSI is a Coalition of Action from The Consumer Goods Forum (CGF), a not-for-profit organisation of consumer goods companies. It brings together an extended food safety community to collaboratively drive harmonisation and improvement in food safety systems, with a vision of access to safe food for all. In particular, GFSI benchmarks food safety certification programmes (food safety schemes) for the industry. Its robust assessment and oversight gives assurance that:
GFSI-recognised Certification Programmes contain all the elements required by the food industry for a comprehensive food safety audit;
Organisations certified to GFSI-recognised certification programmes have robust food safety systems that consistently produce safe food.
This enables a ‘once certified, accepted everywhere’ approach and reduces inefficiencies from requests for audits against several standards.
How trust was eroded
GFSI members have highlighted concerns over the perceived inconsistency of outcomes of third-party food safety audits. Performance data to quantify the issue has been scarce, but, essentially, the sentiment within the food industry was of a slow but certain erosion of trust and confidence in third-party certification. This was mainly driven by observed inconsistencies of standards amongst certified sites, and the too frequent disappointments in food safety standards when visiting sites. Furthermore, an increase in second-party audits, which duplicated large parts of third-party audits, was cited as another clear symptom of that erosion in trust.
The sentiment within the food industry was of a slow but certain erosion of trust and confidence in third-party certification.
GFSI was mandated to embark on an extensive review of the situation, consulting with stakeholders to third-party food safety certifications and independent experts. This led to a framework of inter-related projects designed to drive improved trust and confidence. Named ‘Race to the Top’, the framework was officially launched in March 2020.
The first step of this ‘race’ was the publication of the GFSI Benchmarking Requirements version 2020. This introduces a set of new and strengthened elements to GFSI-recognised certification programmes, including food safety culture, mandatory unannounced audits, and a formal framework for the use of information and communication technologies when remote auditing. These are now trickling down to more than 140,000 organisations, and GFSI is planning to formally measure the impact of those changes on business food safety practices through a broad survey of certified sites, certification bodies and auditors scheduled in the autumn.
This was only the beginning though. More fundamental changes were required to address systemic issues and four more projects have since been identified and worked on:
Creating a GFSI recognition process for providers of food safety auditors’ Continuing Professional Development (CPD) and certification. The value of such providers today is undeniable, but vastly underestimated. By introducing a process of GFSI recognition, we hope to develop a distinct and esteemed profession of food safety auditing on a par with other auditing professions, such as financial auditing. This project is currently undergoing a series of broad public consultations
Strengthening the GFSI oversight of Certification Programme Owners (CPOs) with added elements of self-reporting and performance measures to drive continuous improvement
Enabling collaborative management of Certification Bodies between Accreditation Bodies and CPOs. Although GFSI does not have direct oversight of Certification Bodies, we recognise their critical role in the success of GFSI-recognised Certification Programmes. We are, therefore, collaborating with all three parties on an approach based on the exchange of Certification Body key performance indicators (KPIs). These KPIs will be monitored to create transparency of performance and reward Certification Bodies that showcase excellence
Enabling access to, and validation of, certificate status of all volunteering organisations certified to a GFSI-recognised programme through a certificate platform. This will verify the genuine nature of a certificate, and allow certified organisations to increase their visibility among their stakeholders
The rebuilding of trust is ongoing. GFSI continues its work on ‘Race to the Top’ through working groups, stakeholder consultations and live webinars, and input and feedback from all interested stakeholders is welcomed.