Certification Program owners at Global Food Safety Conference 2017 put Spotlight on Auditor Competency and unannounced witnessed audits

LRQA Senior Technical Manager Food Safety Tim Ahn, considers key themes emerging and their role in driving global food safety

At the GFSI Global Food Safety Conference [#GFSI17] which is taking place in Houston, USA from 27 February through to 2 March, one of the main plenary sessions this morning saw food safety scheme owners - or Certification Program Owners (CPOs) as they are now known - telling a packed auditorium that they are meeting 95% of the new Food Safety Modernization Act [FSMA] standards with GFSI recognised schemes.

The Food Safety Modernization Act; more than just a layer of regulation

I believe that The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) will prove to be the most important piece of US legislation to impact upon the food industry since the formation of the country’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA) more than a century ago.

The FSMA, which has implications for the food industry that reach far beyond America’s borders, is a proactive piece of legislation that looks to secure the US food supply by shifting the traditional focus of federal regulators from reacting to food contamination incidents to preventing their occurrence. With large food facilities required to come into compliance with the Act’s Current Good Manufacturing Practice, Hazard Analysis and Risk-Based Preventive Controls for Human Food in September 2016, its impact on the global food supply chain is becoming clearer.

More than another layer of regulation, the FSMA is revolutionising many food safety practices, and raising the consequences for non-compliance. For one, the FDA now has the authority to ensure that all participants apply science-based preventive controls throughout the food supply chain. It has new oversight responsibility, including mandatory scheduled inspections, greater access to accredited testing laboratories and legal access to private company records – including their food safety plans.

Auditor competency drives global food safety

Other themes emerging from the session involved Auditor Competency, which has been a dominant GFSI theme over the past few years. The food sector increasingly relies on independent, robust third party certification, not just to protect brands and businesses from health scares and prosecutions, but also to drive improvements and secure competitive advantage.

A thorough certification process can only be led by auditors with the best audit skills, in-depth food safety knowledge and sector specific expertize who are able to help organisations minimise risks, improve systems and processes to deliver confidence for stakeholders throughout the food supply chain. The integrity of the audits and the resulting certificates are of the utmost importance. Listening to this morning’s session, LRQA believes that these can only be delivered by a well trained and experienced auditor who knows the sector.

This is why we at LRQA have an extensive set of requirements, training and a continuous improvement programme for our auditors to ensure they have the right skills and knowledge to deliver a high quality audit. A risk-based approach is the only way that an auditor can do an effective, in-depth audit. They need to be able to speak the language of the shop floor as well as that of the board room to gain a complete understanding of an organization, its management system, processes and risks.

Last but not least, the auditor and the certification have to support the company to drive continuous improvement. The auditor has to challenge the organization, they will never be the consultant of course, but they can challenge and support the organization by completing a robust and an in-depth audit.

The role of unannounced witnessed audits

Another key area of focus that stood out for me was the growing importance of unannounced witnessed audits, with the focus on transparency building confidence in a robust and safe food supply chain. This is very timely given that in December 2016, FSSC 22000 launched version 4 of its international food safety management system certification scheme following a 14-month consultation process with industry, certification bodies, accreditation bodies, training organizations and governments.

Unannounced audits are already a feature of other GFSI recognized schemes, such as IFS and BRC. However, in the case of FSSC 22000 version 4, it is mandatory for at least one of the two surveillance audits to be an unannounced audit.

The certification body determines which of the surveillance audits will be unannounced, although certified organizations can choose to have both surveillance audits unannounced, if they wish. The unannounced audit can take place at any time during operational working hours and will start with an inspection of the production facilities and the auditor will spend at least half of their time in the production area assessing the implementation of the applicable CCPs, PRPs and OPRPs.

The new version aims to make the GFSI-recognized standard more rigorous and consistent, primarily through the introduction of unannounced audits and a new focus on food fraud prevention.

With a focus on driving global food safety, these developments can only be seen as positive steps.

To find out about LRQA's FSMA or Food Safety Assurance Services, visit us on stand 103 during #GFSI17.

Contact us to learn more about GFSI certification