By Esteve Garriga
There are many important issues to be considered in the food industry, such as consumer tastes, environmental impact, and economic aspects, but the most important is food safety.
Although current food safety management system (FSMS) certification schemes around the world are highly effective, I believe it is desirable to have a single agreed-upon FSMS certification that would harmonize various scheme requirements. Such a system would help reduce the auditing burden for companies that are certified to several FSMS schemes.
The most widespread FSMS certification schemes
In 1996, the British Retail Consortium (BRC) was created by UK retailers (Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s, and others) to harmonize food safety standards across the supply chain. The first edition of the BRC Global Standard (BRCGS) for Food Safety was issued in 1998 and is now in its eighth edition. Since then, sector-focused standards have been published covering different stages in the food supply chain (e.g., storage and distribution or packaging materials). Today, more than 28,000 sites are operating under such schemes worldwide.
International Featured Standards (IFS) was founded under the name International Food Standard in 2003 by German and French retail federations including Aldi, Lidl, Carrefour, and Auchan. Its food safety standard, IFS Food, is in its seventh version. Like BRCGS, further sector-focused standards have followed. Today, more than 26,000 sites are working according to this scheme all over the world.
In 2009, several global food manufacturers (including The Coca-Cola Co., Nestlé, and Danone) joined efforts and fostered Food Safety System Certification (FSSC 22000). Its FSMS certification scheme encompassed the requirements of ISO 22000, “Food Safety Management Systems—Requirements for any organization in the food chain,” sector-specific prerequisite programs requirements (based on technical specifications in the ISO/TS 22002 standards or BSI/PAS standards), and some additional requirements. It is now in version 5.1. Currently, more than 24,000 sites are successfully performing under this scheme worldwide.
The recognition body
After many food safety crises occurred over many years, the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) was created in 2000 to enhance consumers’ protection and restore their trust in the food industry by improving food safety management practices. The most relevant action taken by GFSI was in compiling and harmonizing existing food safety management requirements to establish a benchmark against which the various FSMS certification schemes could be assessed and recognized by GFSI. It recognized all of the above-mentioned schemes and many others as seen in figure 1.
For food industry organizations, this recognition implies “once certified, worldwide recognized.” The concept is similar to the well-known International Accreditation Forum’s (IAF) conformity assessment program, which is focused on ensuring that ISO management system certificates issued by a certification body may be relied upon as long as the certification body was accredited by an IAF-recognized accreditation body. So GFSI is to FSMS certifications what IAF is to management system certifications.
But there is an important difference. GFSI not only addresses the assurance of the audit process’s independence and technical competence in order to grant a worldwide recognition to the issued certificates, GFSI also validates the technical equivalence of the different FSMS certification schemes according to its own benchmark as a means of getting the issued certificates accepted everywhere.
And there is a “country factor” that must be taken into account. Despite the FSMS schemes’ overall distribution being relatively diverse, certain regions tend to favor one FSMS over another. For instance, as seen in the figure 2, comparing FSSC 22000 and BRCGS certifications in food packaging companies, BRCGS is more prominent in the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Europe, whereas FSSC 22000 is more prominent in Asia, North America, and Latin America.
The problem is that the different FSMS certification schemes, although recognized as equivalent, are not equally demanding. Some schemes are more stringent than others. Thus, despite GFSI’s role, frequently a food industry organization will get FSMS-certified according to several FSMS certification schemes, not only because it chooses to but, sometimes, due to its customers’ preferences. This is clearly an inefficient and an unnecessary burden for the supplier.
Although GFSI makes it unnecessary for companies to seek multiple FSMS certifications, some do so because they believe, for example, that a potential UK customer will be more receptive to do business with them if they have a BRCGS certificate (or an IFS one if it is a German or French customer). In addition to this, some customers might “suggest” one scheme to their suppliers.
We’ve seen this before
If we look back to the mid-1990s and look not at food safety but quality management systems embraced by U.S., German, French, and Italian car makers, we saw much the same scenario.
Back then you had several automotive quality management system (QMS) standards:
- QS-9000 (QMS requirements from American car makers General Motors, Chrysler, and Ford to be fulfilled by their suppliers)
- VDA 6.1 (identical approach from German car manufacturers such as BMW and Volkswagen)
- EAQF (same purpose from French car makers)
- AVSQ (from Italian car makers)
At that time, a supplier providing parts to car manufacturers from different geographical areas often had to get its quality management system audited and approved according to several of these standards, all of them aiming at the same goal. Again, it was not an efficient or practical process in terms of costs and work burden for the suppliers.
Fortunately, the main automotive players wisely cooperated and gave strength to the International Automotive Task Force (IATF), a group of car makers and their respective trade associations (from the United States, Germany, France, Italy, and other countries). One of its purposes was reaching a global consensus on automotive-focused QMS requirements.
In 1999, by means of a joint effort with the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), the technical specification for automotive sector quality management systems, ISO/TS 16949, was developed, harmonizing requirements on automotive-focused QMS. It is now in its fourth edition and is currently named IATF 16949:2016.
There is a difference to be underlined between the two scenarios described. GFSI’s role recognizing the technical equivalence of the different FSMS certification schemes had no similar official counterpart in the automotive industry at that time.
Unlike ISO standards, the current FSMS certification schemes are privately owned, and their existing and legitimate interests, obviously, do not help to forward a single harmonized FSMS scheme.
Despite the effectiveness of the current FSMS certification schemes, what is needed is one scheme accepted by all. Imagine the level of excellence, synergies, and efficiency that could be reached with a unique and agreed-upon FSMS certification scheme by the main food industry players working together.
This is what the automotive industry successfully accomplished with IATF 16949. Why not take advantage of its successful experience on this issue and follow in its footsteps?
About the author
Esteve Garriga is responsible for quality assurance at RECAM LÀSER, S.L. which specializes in engineering, industrialization, and manufacture of metallic products for the automotive, railway sector, and other industries. He has a broad experience in both the automotive industry and the food packaging sector concerning quality assurance and food safety. Garriga was educated in business administration at Escuela de Alta Dirección y Administración (EADA) in Barcelona and specialized in quality at Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya (UPC) in Barcelona. He is a European Excellence Assessor by EFQM, ISTO certified via IQA, and is a member of the Spanish Association for Quality (AEC).