Food Safety through a Global Lens
By Catherine François
Global food trade is expanding, providing consumers with access to a wider year-round variety of foods at lower prices. Expanding trade has brought into sharper focus the divergence among countries’ food safety regulations and standards. These variations may reflect differences among their populations’ tastes and preferences, ability to produce safe food and willingness to pay for risk-reducing technology. Private food safety initiatives, such as voluntary quality assurance standards, are also contributing to the resolution of differences across borders.
Origins of the Global Food Safety Initiative
The Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) is a collaboration among some of the world’s leading food safety experts from retail, manufacturing and foodservice companies, as well as service providers associated with the food supply chain. It is coordinated by The Consumer Goods Forum (formerly CIES – The Food Business Forum), the only independent global network for consumer goods retailers and manufacturers worldwide.
In May 2000, following a number of food safety incidents, a group of international retail executives recognized the need to enhance food safety, ensure consumer protection and strengthen consumer confidence. These same executives launched the GFSI, a nonprofit foundation created under Belgian law. The GFSI sets requirements for food safety schemes through a benchmarking process to improve cost efficiency throughout the food supply chain, develop mechanisms to exchange information, raise consumer awareness and review good food safety practices. As food safety is paramount, the main goal of the GFSI is to ensure that the global supply chain is safe for consumers.
Mission and Objectives
Those involved in the GFSI share a basic aim: “Safe Food for Consumers Everywhere.” The GFSI mission is simple but impactful for all stakeholders interested in ensuring the production of safe food. The mission is “continuous improvement in food safety management systems to ensure confidence in the delivery of safe food to consumers.”
The GFSI objectives are as follows:
• promoting convergence between food safety standards through maintaining a benchmarking process for food safety management schemes;
• improving cost efficiency throughout the food supply chain through the common acceptance of GFSI-recognized standards by retailers around the world; and
• providing a unique international stakeholder platform for networking, knowledge exchange and sharing of best food safety practices and information.
Within the GFSI, benchmarking provides a mechanism for the convergence and recognition of food safety requirements within food safety schemes and their supporting standards, and is a procedure by which a food safety-related scheme is compared to the GFSI Guidance Document. The process is carried out in an independent, unbiased, technically proficient and transparent manner.
Benchmarking a scheme successfully means that all recognized schemes have a common foundation of requirements that should provide consistent results, in regard to the common requirements applied during an audit. However, the benchmarked schemes cannot be considered fully equivalent, as schemes differ in relation to their level of prescription and specific needs.
Origins of GFSI-recognized Schemes
All the schemes recognized by the GFSI have been derived, over many years, from standards developed by individual organizations, such as retailers, industry sectors or certification organizations. The GFSI-recognized schemes originated from standards dating back to the early 1980s, with the major influence being the requirements specified by retailers for their own brand suppliers.
The Benchmarking Process
The GFSI Guidance Document is currently being revised, and during this revision the benchmarking process currently outlined in version 5 will undergo some major changes. An entire section of the new modular Guidance Document will be dedicated to benchmarking.
Standards Benchmarked against the GFSI Guidance Document, 5th Edition:
• British Retail Consortium (BRC) Global Standard, version 5
• Dutch Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) Option B
• Foundation for Food Safety Certification (FSSC) 22000
• Global Red Meat Standard
• International Food Standard (IFS), version 5
• Safe Quality Food (SQF) 2000, level 2
• Synergy 22000
Primary production schemes:
• GlobalGAP (Aquaculture and Livestock IFA V3.0) GlobalGAP IFA V.03 (Fruit and Vegetable, Livestock and Aquaculture scopes)
• SQF 1000, level 2
Primary production and manufacturing scheme:
Although the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) 22000 standard is also meant to be globally applicable, the GFSI does not formally recognize ISO 22000 on its own. The GFSI does not intend to be restrictive in its activities, but by the very nature of the benchmarking process, any submitted standard must meet the requirements defined in the GFSI Guidance Document. Differences exist in three main areas:
• The lack of defined prerequisite programs in ISO 22000
• The accreditation requirement for ISO 22000 differs from that specified in the GFSI Guidance Document
• Ownership and accountability issues
In September 2007, the GFSI Technical Committee published a document titled, “What Is ISO 22000?” which paved the way for further work by a number of organizations interested in gaining recognition by the GFSI. The document is freely available on www.mygfsi.com.
In early 2010, the GFSI formally recognized the FSSC 22000 scheme, based on ISO 22000 and the British Standards Institute’s PAS 220 specification document, as well as the Synergy 22000 scheme, which is based on ISO 22000 and ISO/TS 22002-1. Both the FSSC and Synergy schemes also integrate auditing protocols that are not covered by either ISO or PAS requirements.
Relationship with Codex
By their very nature, the GFSI-recognized standards are written in differing styles, but all amplify or describe in more detail the requirements laid down in the Codex Alimentarius Commission’s General Principles of Food Hygiene Code of Practice. The GFSI-recognized standards are revised and implemented more regularly than the Codex standards and thus have attempted to address issues that are currently faced by the food industry; good examples of this are incident management, food security and allergen management. In addition, within all GFSI-recognized standards there are requirements above and beyond those in the Codex standards, which are seen by the food industry as being important to food safety or highly desirable to ensure continuing compliance with requirements. Good examples of such requirements are related to product specifications, product analysis, purchasing procedures, internal audits and full product/ingredient traceability.
All the GFSI-recognized standards reflect the need for compliance with legal requirements and all are based on HACCP principles, food safety management standards and Good Manufacturing Practices. It must be appreciated, however, that these standards were all based on best practices and therefore, by inference, can be traced back to the base requirements of Codex standards, but are not particularly referenced as such.
As the GFSI standards were developed, a relatively small number of requirements were incorporated that did not originate from the Codex standards. However, such requirements emphasize business needs between supplier and customer; good examples of these are stock control, complaint handling and internal audits. A detailed document has been developed by the GFSI to cross-reference Codex standards to the GFSI Guidance Document and each of the recognized standards. This document also takes into account not only food safety requirements but also supporting management mechanisms. This document is freely available on www.mygfsi.com under “Information Resources” and “GFSI Recognized Schemes.”
What About a Single Scheme?
Trying to create a single, harmonized scheme was the subject of great debate in the early years of the GFSI. It was decided that the preferred option was the benchmarking of existing or new schemes. It was felt that if there had been a move to develop one global standard, complex issues such as legislative, political and cultural differences would have been extremely difficult to overcome, and the time frame to actually develop such a scheme would have been seen as excessive by those who were using the existing standards.
Common Acceptance of Standards
Under the umbrella of the GFSI, eight major retailers came to a common acceptance of four GFSI-benchmarked food safety schemes in June 2007. Each scheme has now aligned itself with common criteria defined by food safety experts, with the objective of making food production and manufacture as safe as possible. As a result, this will also drive cost efficiency in the supply chain and reduce the duplication of audits. The GFSI vision of “once certified, accepted everywhere” has become a reality. In addition to the original retailers (i.e., Carrefour, Tesco, ICA, Metro, Migros, Ahold, WalMart and Delhaize) who agreed to reduce duplication in the supply chain through the common acceptance of any of the four GFSI-benchmarked schemes, many other foodservice, retail and manufacturing companies have begun using this approach.
While the GFSI encourages businesses within the retail, foodservice and manufacturing sectors to choose GFSI-recognized schemes, these businesses can make individual choices about whether or not to implement the GFSI. Although choosing a GFSI-recognized scheme may initially require a large investment for a business, the number of audits is expected to decline significantly after implementation. Additionally, an outside customer may require specific audits, but under the GFSI framework, only one scheme is required.
Auditor competence is a key factor relating to the integrity of any scheme; it has long been recognized by scheme owners as a matter that must be managed and controlled to ensure consistency and fairness. At each of the stakeholder meetings held by the GFSI at previous conferences, auditor competence has been the subject of much debate. Each GFSI-recognized scheme validates and monitors each auditing company and the individuals who work for those companies. In addition, GFSI requirements state that the auditing companies have to follow internationally recognized accreditation rules. These are validated and monitored on a regular basis by other accreditation bodies to ensure that the auditing companies abide by these rules. This provides a system of checks and balances that helps to ensure the integrity of each audit, and that all audits are carried out in a uniform and consistent manner.
There are a number of areas related to auditor competence in which the GFSI continues to work:
• As a member of the International Accreditation Forum, the GFSI will be actively engaged to ensure the food industry’s requirements are made known to the Accreditation Bodies, and will work cooperatively to develop a harmonized approach to accreditation processes.
• The GFSI will provide technical support from its Technical Working Group members to ISO committees that develop standards relating to accreditation and
The GFSI recognizes the importance of the accreditation process in relation to scheme ownership and feels that it is essential to gain cooperation with organizations that can influence accreditation processes on a global or regional basis.
Networking, Knowledge Exchange and Information Sharing
The GFSI Board members are drawn from major retailers, manufacturers and foodservice operators, and provide the strategic direction and oversight of the GFSI’s daily management. A new governance structure was implemented in October 2008, ensuring that the key partners in the supply chain are equally represented in the decision-making process of the Board. The Board steers initiatives with the support of the Advisory Council and input from the Stakeholder Group. The GFSI secretariat ensures the delivery of the objectives set by the Board, integrating the expectations of all stakeholders.
The GFSI Board’s functions are as follows:
• Oversees and steers the GFSI’s strategy and implementation, with guidance from the Advisory Council;
• Defines the objectives of the tasks allocated to each Technical Working Group and ensures progress is being made against agreed timelines and deliverables;
• Assigns one or two Board Member Liaisons to each Technical Working Group to support and monitor their work and progress;
• Ensures that the GFSI is adequately resourced and oversees the allocation of these resources.
The GFSI was initially formed to address retailer requirements. It was felt that there were sufficient detailed knowledge and awareness of consumer needs within the GFSI and the activities were closely related to matters of a highly technical nature. However, as the GFSI moves forward, involvement with consumer associations will become essential and extremely valuable, and representation of these associations will be better integrated into the governance structure of the GFSI.
Since the GFSI was established, there has been less duplication of audits and continuous improvement in the content of the standards. Healthy competition has been enhanced between existing schemes, driving continuous improvement in the delivery of the standards. The food supply chain has seen increases in cost efficiency and comparable audit approaches. The most important results, however, have been greater confidence in sourcing for end-users and safer food for consumers.
On the Horizon
The GFSI strives to obtain wider acceptance and implementation of GFSI-recognized schemes. Another goal is to develop a tool kit that defines food safety competencies for small and/or less-developed businesses and provides a checklist for company self-assessment. The GFSI is also conferring with international regulatory experts in its Global Regulatory Affairs Working Group to better understand the international legal framework in which companies are operating to work towards a better alignment and harmonization of schemes. The major focus this year will be on revising the GFSI Guidance Document to produce version 6.
The GFSI celebrates its 10-year anniversary this year, and although it has made great strides in fulfilling its many objectives, there is still much work to be done. The GFSI Stakeholder Group identified numerous key action items during a meeting in Washington, DC this past February. This input will be reflected in the strategic plan that the Board is currently developing for the next five years.
The increasingly diverse tastes of consumers and the realities of the supply chain have created a global food economy where local ideas and food products are gaining international currency. Securing a global food supply chain requires a more thoughtful approach to how food businesses and governments look at ensuring food safety.
Supply-chain collaboration and coordination in the development and implementation of third-party certification has taken on a new urgency and new focus. Third-party certification can provide consistency, cost efficiency, less duplication of effort, buying confidence and safe food for the consumer. More information can be found on www.mygfsi.com.
Read the sidebar "Practical Applications of GFSI".
Catherine François is the director of Food Safety Programs at The Consumer Goods Forum (formerly CIES). She joined The Consumer Goods Forum in 2000 in a coordinating role for the association's marketing and membership department. After working in both the strategic and operational management program teams, she was appointed manager in 2003 and spent several years working with the CEO on the strategic development of The Forum in the context of the global association landscape. In 2005, she was given the responsibilities for overseeing the management and international development of the GFSI and the CGF Global Food Safety Conference. She holds a B.A. (Hons) in Management Studies and French from the University of Leeds.
Practical Applications of GFSI
Yves Rey, Corporate Quality General Manager, Danone Group, France, responds to questions about how Danone has applied GFSI.
Has your company implemented the GFSI?
“I strongly support the vision and mission the GFSI stands for, and as Danone Corporate Quality General Manager, I contribute to the implementation of the GFSI’s main statement: ‘Once certified, accepted everywhere.’ Concerning Danone’s suppliers, we have saved about one million Euros per year, because we don’t have to go and audit our suppliers as they are already certified against one of the GFSI-recognized standards. Nevertheless, according to a science-based risk assessment, provided it’s necessary due to the uniqueness of Danone’s products, all we have to ask for is our specific requirements.
Regarding our production facilities, due to our ISO 22000 background, all of them are now certified against one of the GFSI-recognized food safety schemes, FSSC 22000, made up of ISO documents. Now, thanks to the GFSI’s recognition of FSSC 22000, we don’t have to carry out two certification audits, one against our own certification scheme and the other one at the request of the retailers. This policy is being implemented as well by all the big international manufacturers (e.g., Nestlé, Kraft, Unilever and Coca-Cola).”
What have been some challenges? Some successes?
“The first challenge that has been taken up by the GFSI was its evolution from a 100% retailer-driven organization to a truly international multi-stakeholder one. I was the first manufacturer that was brought in, in 2006. I successfully broke new ground in food chain partnerships. Today, the GFSI has succeeded in creating the right mix of supply chain actors, such as retailers, manufacturers and foodservice companies, as well as those from various geographic areas, such as the EU, the U.S. and Asia.
The second big challenge was to merge two different food safety backgrounds to create this common food safety understanding. The manufacturers were very keen on ISO standards, while the GFSI had, at that time, only recognized as equivalent retailer-driven standards, such as BRC and IFS. Now, thanks to FSSC 22000, which is made up of ISO standards, norms and technical specifications, and recognized by the technical committee as equivalent to the GFSI-recognized standards, we have created this common food safety platform.
The third challenge will be to convince all the manufacturers that are already certified only to the ISO 22000 standards (more than 12,000) to extend their audit by half a day to get their facility certified against FSSC 22000. That will help them work according to the GFSI Guidance Document, which provides security for both retailers and manufacturers to convince the non-aligned, non-GFSI retailers to stop asking manufacturers to be certified against one specific food safety scheme, which creates useless duplication of costs and effort and causes communication dissonance.”
What have you learned in the process of adapting the GFSI to your business that you can share with the Food Safety Magazine audience?
“By working together and benchmarking our requirements, we discovered that more than 95% of food safety requirements were the same, whatever food standard in the market you may choose. It was only then that we understood that running multiple audits was really useless and costly. In other words, there’s nothing to stop our progress toward one unique standard and going for a single audit.
FSSC 22000 is a good start; it shows that a huge part of the food supply chain can get behind one standard and help bridge the gap between public and private sector requirements, thanks to its intrinsic ISO make-up.”
What are some tips you would give to a food processor who wants to begin applying the GFSI?
“I would say to them that food safety hazards at the point of consumption may be introduced at any point along the food chain. Consequently, it’s obvious that food safety is the joint responsibility of everyone involved in the food chain, and it requires their combined efforts.
One weak link can result in unsafe food that is dangerous to health—and when this happens, the hazards to consumers can be serious and very costly.
These days, the food industry is still subject to an array of standards, while the demands for safe food, against a background of increasing international trade, are making international food safety harmonization essential.
If you seek to get started, pick a GFSI-recognized standard; don’t reinvent the wheel. Enhancing transparency from farm to fork by sharing the same language and best practices will increase consumer confidence in the food supplied to them for the benefit of all those along the food supply chain. Food safety is a non-competitive issue.”