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For senior leaders in food manufacturing companies, keeping up with the staggering layers of food safety compliance standards is not only challenging; it’s an expensive budget item. Manufacturers, depending on their size, may undergo anywhere from 5 to 50 audits per year. These audits require substantial allocation of resources, with staff diverted from regular duties to gather documents, prepare schedules, train personnel, execute corrective actions, and assist auditors in real time.

Between government regulations, industry certifications, and customer requirements, it’s nearly impossible to cover all compliance bases – or to reclaim 100% of your staff’s time preparing for them. However, you can get close by mapping your existing food safety preparedness efforts with a globally recognized and accepted scheme rather than focusing on each individually. 

By aligning your Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) preparedness with Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) compliance standards (e.g. SQF, BRC, FSSC 22000, IFS), you will see an increase in time and cost savings across each plant, and your GFSI certification will open doors for new business. 

GFSI – Easier access to larger markets

GFSI, while not required from a regulatory standpoint like FSMA, is often essential for business with major retailers and manufacturers who see it as the gold standard for food. GFSI operates with the motto “once certified, recognized everywhere,” and food manufacturers who can point to their certification immediately show current and potential customers that their plant is operating with a structured, comprehensive, and effective food safety program. Many of today’s leading companies seek GFSI-recognized programs in their supply chain, including Kroger, Amazon, Costco, Tesco, Target, and Walmart. 

To determine which program best aligns with your activities, use factors like the number of facilities and employees, whether your company produces high or low-risk products, and how many HACCP plans each facility has. Here are some of the GFSI-recognized certification programs to choose from:

  • SQF: Unique for integrating a quality component with food safety. Involves a three-step process culminating in comprehensive implementation of food safety and quality management systems.
  • FSSC 22000: Utilizes four pillars based on existing ISO standards, including interactive communication and continual improvement to achieve certification. 
  • BRC Global Standards: The largest scheme, encompassing seven critical sections from senior management commitment to personnel.
  • PrimusGFS: Recognized primarily in the Western Hemisphere, covering the entire produce supply chain.
  • IFS: Focuses on auditing food manufacturers for safety and quality, organized into six main categories.
  • Global GAP: Promotes safe, sustainable agriculture with certification scopes in crops, livestock, and aquaculture.

GFSI – A risk management perspective

Beyond market reach, GFSI certification isn’t just a badge – it’s a frontline defense in food safety management, keeping your processes sharp and secure. GFSI reduces the need for additional and duplicate audits from different purchasing companies, helping to prevent audit fatigue that can lead to compliance gaps and oversight errors. GFSI-recognized schemes not only focus your team’s efforts on critical safety issues but also preserve resources for strategic initiatives rather than repetitive compliance tasks.

GFSI’s robust risk management schemes are continually updated to reflect the latest standards, safeguarding your food safety management system against the risks associated with outdated practices. Staying aligned with both GFSI and FSMA requirements ensures a dynamic defense against the evolving landscape of food safety regulations. 

Key considerations for FSMA and GFSI alignment

GFSI’s alignment with FSMA offers significant advantages for food manufacturers. By mapping GFSI certification elements to FSMA’s requirements, you streamline your food safety processes and enhance risk management. Here’s how they intersect:

  • Consistent auditing and inspection criteria: A GFSI certification not only aligns with FSMA’s inspection criteria but fulfills many of its requirements, minimizing the need for repeated evaluations and focusing on continuous improvement.
  • Unified qualified personnel: Both FSMA and GFSI call for dedicated food safety professionals to oversee compliance efforts, such as team leads or Preventive Control Qualified Individuals (PCQIs). By aligning FSMA preparedness practices with GFSI compliance, you can reduce duplication of efforts and resources, saving time and reducing audit-related expenses.
  • Risk-based safety management: Integration of your facility’s hazard analysis with GFSI’s risk assessment strategies enables proactive identification and management of potential hazards. This reduces the likelihood of food safety incidents and regulatory penalties.
  • Integrated supply chain oversight: GFSI’s Supplier Program and FSMA’s Foreign Supplier Verification Program (FSVP) requirements are closely aligned, which allows for a consolidated process for supplier verification and risk management within the supply chain.
  • Prerequisite programs and cGMPs: Key elements of GFSI prerequisite programs align with FSMA’s current Good Manufacturing Practices (cGMPs). Areas of commonality include:
  • Systematic environmental monitoring
  • Validated sanitation overseen by competent management
  • Countermeasures for food fraud and defense

Alignment between FSMA and GFSI not only ensures regulatory compliance but also offers a platform for business resilience, quality assurance, and a competitive edge in the global marketplace.

While more and more companies are seeking GFSI-certified suppliers, there’s an increasing demand for thorough food safety data. Customers do seek additional assurances, supplementing GFSI audits with specific data requests or further inspections. Nonetheless, technology made to eliminate the manual burden of compliance can significantly reduce the time spent on data collection and audit prep.

Technology flexible for evolving compliance

Audit preparedness:

Audits are among the most time-intensive and stress-inducing activities for food and beverage teams. True audit preparedness means being audit ready all of the time – not after spending a specific effort, encompassing several weeks of preparation, prior to an audit. 

The right digital solution plays a crucial role in streamlining this process, enabling companies to manage these requirements efficiently despite limited resources. Digital food safety management simplifies compliance by automating audit schedules and protecting against unannounced audits with organized quality data. 

Tools like digital checklists and self-assessment protocols ensure that all compliance areas are thoroughly reviewed before auditors step in. This level of preparedness minimizes poor scores and streamlines the audit process, allowing you to maintain continuous compliance with GFSI standards, federal regulations, and customer requests while operating at peak efficiency.

After going digital, flour manufacturer Lehi Mills had next to no necessary prep for their preliminary desk audit and actual GFSI audit – a process that would otherwise have taken at least three weeks. They were able to achieve an impressively high score of 94.

Document management:

Maintenance and management of records and documents are a key requirement in GFSI certification. Relying on paper-based records of processes can be a hurdle in completing a successful audit. Paper records are notoriously difficult to manage. They can be a challenge when trying to maintain version control as well as proper documentation of critical activities.

More importantly, the use of spreadsheets and binders isn’t just cumbersome and time-intensive; it poses risks of human error. Missing and incomplete records could lead to audit deductions. Worse, they could compromise a key aspect of your overall food safety program, potentially leading to production stops and recalls.

As part of an automated system, every form, spec, task, corrective action, supplier notification or document, finished product release, and virtually all other data is time- and date-stamped. The data then becomes a permanent record in an easy-to-access, centralized online repository. This approach ties all of your records to your food safety plan components and ensures your company is ready to respond to inquiries at a moment’s notice.

By implementing electronic documentation, Sokol Custom Foods was able to reduce its volume of paperwork by 30-50% in a plant that produces over 150 unique products.

Supplier management:

Managing suppliers continues to be one of the most resource-intensive challenges in the industry. Yet, monitoring vendors against GFSI standards adds an additional layer of complexity. With binders, filing cabinets and clipboards, executing vendor management against your customer’s specific program will be cumbersome and time-consuming. 

Technology allows you to do more with less, making it easier for your teams to manage compliance needs throughout the supply chain. Digital supplier management ensures suppliers follow your GFSI, FSMA, and internal supplier program requirements. In doing so, it helps you take a preventive, instead of reactive, approach to non-conformances throughout the supply chain. 

Digitized supplier management allows you to automate activities, like vendor onboarding, and provide ongoing visibility to achieve the greatest level of confidence in knowing your suppliers are complying with all of your program requirements. When assessing food safety management solutions, Grupo Navis gave SafetyChain top marks for its FDA, GFSI, and Foreign Supplier Compliance management capabilities. Just one month after implementing the platform, they successfully navigated an unannounced GFSI audit.

Making compliance work for you

Managing both FSMA and GFSI is an extensive undertaking for any food manufacturer. Fortunately, the way in which these requirements have been established enables many facilities to establish programs that satisfy both regulatory and non-regulatory aspects of food safety.

As you consider how to align your FSMA and GFSI efforts, remember that a transition from traditional, manual systems to automated, digital systems can transform any cumbersome compliance process into a strategic asset that drives business success. As the landscape of food safety continues to evolve, the commitment to such comprehensive compliance frameworks will ensure that your company not only meets the current standards, but is also well-prepared for future challenges and opportunities.

Author: Ruth Bitterman, Continuous Improvement Coach at SafetyChain (safetychain.com)