How well informed are we about the food safety controls that are applied in each step of the food chain?
Perhaps the best starting point is to highlight the numerous food safety certification schemes that have been developed over the years (for example, Red Tractor, Global G.A.P., RSPCA, BMPA, BRCGS, FSSC 22000, FSMS, FAMI-QS, IFS, etc. to mention just a few of those currently related to the food sector).
Farmers, manufacturers, retailers, distributors, and other key stakeholders want consumers to be confident that the food they buy is safe to eat, and has been produced responsibly. As has previously been seen in the sector, even a relatively minor food recall can seriously tarnish a previously glowing reputation.
Public confidence in the sector is engendered not only by following applicable regulations but by the additional support of a robust management system, whereby everyone involved is aware of what needs to be done and how to do it. Regular audits which, in turn, lead to continuous improvement of the processes designed to deliver good food, are obviously the best way to ensure good practice, and certification schemes are designed to promote this.
The owners of food safety schemes are constantly reviewing and revising their requirements in accordance with market demands and regulatory changes. It is not unusual to find the industry debating which scheme to adopt, so that it best satisfies their needs whilst at the same time supporting improvements in the quality of their products, securing production and facilitating access to national and international markets.
Those with an awareness of the food safety sector will undoubtedly be familiar with the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) and its objectives in benchmarking requirements. For those who are less familiar with the sector, GFSI comprises a group of 37 retailers and manufacturers selected from members of the Consumer Goods Forum to oversee food safety standards and harmonise their approach, with the intention of ensuring food safety on a global scale.
GFSI is now working on a “Race To The Top” framework, with the intention of determining how well the certification industry is managing the schemes that GFSI recognise. A primary objective of that work is to look at the processes that an individual must comply with in order to be approved as an auditor. This clearly reinforces the importance that is placed on ensuring demonstrable auditor competence as part of this global initiative.
When the GFSI experts meet to discuss the needs of the industry and the harmonised approach that recognised schemes must follow, they clearly consider previous incidents and the lessons learned in their revisions of benchmarking requirements to prevent future issues.
To support this, the Food Safety Scheme owners are continuously working collaboratively to develop robust sector-specific requirements, to satisfy updates to applicable legislation, maintaining Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) principles as the core of their normative requirements.
The food laws, legislation and regulations of each country and the work of sector scheme owners and GFSI all have the same aims. Our lifestyles have changed dramatically over the years and expectations of the quality of products have also increased. When then considering the impact of the COVID pandemic, it has often been difficult to physically attend sites to conduct audits. However, at the same time, there have been some significant challenges to contributors throughout the supply chain that have needed close scrutiny. Certification bodies, accreditation bodies and producers have had to work very closely in order to maintain an appropriate level of review to ensure that ongoing confidence in the supply chain has been maintained.
In addition to the implementation of specific legislative food safety requirements, it must be borne in mind that issuing a certificate to a farmer or manufacturer involves ensuring that not only personnel who undertake audits, but also reviewers, and decision-makers are fully trained and regularly monitored. It is important for certification bodies to work closely with scheme owners to ensure that any changes that are made to their schemes are quickly implemented and that specific knowledge is transferred to relevant staff in a timely manner.
The food chain in the UK has traditionally been heavily reliant on EU legislation and we are already seeing changes following Brexit. We need to be cautious of relaxations to current UK legislation or requirements that could adversely affect public health, consumer protection, animal welfare and/or environmental sustainability, as other countries begin to produce food for the UK to replace imports from the EU.
Practices in some other countries include:
- Using chemical decontamination to circumvent the need to achieve good standards of hygiene during food production.
- Increased use of chemicals in crop production, which could lead to increased consumption of pesticide residues.
- Accepting different concentrations and ranges of food additives than are currently permitted in the UK.
- Performing fewer welfare checks on livestock animals during transport.
- Labelling that provides consumers with far less information than we are used to seeing as a result of existing standards.
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t review our food safety laws and standards as a whole but it is important to be mindful of the potential impacts that decisions on changing the regulatory framework might have on food safety.
But who evaluates and confirms the competence and capability of Certification Bodies? This is the role of National Accreditation Bodies (NABs), which in the UK is the responsibility of UKAS. Accreditation to ISO/IEC 17021 and ISO/IEC 17065 provides the independent verification of the competence and compliance of a certification body to review and approve the activities of its clients. Accredited certification bodies will have been assessed by relevant independent technical experts to ensure that specific requirements have been met and that the processes and procedures employed during the certification process are fit for purpose.
Of course, certification is not the only supporting activity that is in place to ensure food safety. Much could be said in relation to food inspection, the impact on food when in contact with packaging materials and the huge range of food testing activities that are conducted globally on a day-to-day basis. All of these are also covered by regulation and legislation and conducted under the auspices of accreditation to ISO/IEC 17020 and/or ISO/IEC 17025.
Most consumers are unaware or do not distinguish between a product that has been produced under a food safety certification scheme, so how important then is this recognition? For those who are unfamiliar with the food safety sector it is most likely that they probably don’t really care at all, as long as the final product tastes good and doesn’t make them ill – and here is the key – consumers expect the products to be safe and that’s all that really matters.
The chain of control is in constant operation and consumers should be reassured that, with every bite they take, these comprehensive processes are at work in the background, making their lives easier and safer.