How the demands of the global food supply chain are changing the shape of assurance and certification

In a recent interview, Cor Groenveld, LRQA Global Head of Food Supply Chain Services explains how the demands of the global food supply chain are changing the shape of assurance and certification.

Q: Cor, during the 2013 GFSI Global Food Safety Conference, one of the main discussion points focused on how retailers and manufacturers are approaching assurance and certification in order to drive food safety across their (often complex) global food supply chains.  What’s happening?

CG: Whilst this is a familiar topic, what is interesting is that the key stakeholders - specifically the retailers and manufacturers - are increasingly adopting different strategies dependent on the type of supplier serving their supply chains in order to increase their own levels of food safety assurance.

Retailers are undoubtedly still ‘driving the bus’; they are the ones with the highest risk to their reputations.  Media stories around food safety and quality scares travel across the global networks at the speed of thought, as illustrated by the recent European horsemeat scandal, with many retailers having ‘their name in unwanted lights’ through products being sold on their shelves being contaminated with horsemeat. But also manufacturers are strongly influencing their suppliers and supply chains to ensure safe food and protect their reputation. This common goal for retailers and manufacturers is the reason for the strong cooperation between them in ensuring food safety and driving this upstream the food supply chain.

Q: Can you share any examples of this commitment?

CG: Well, as Philip Clark, Group Chief Executive of global retailing giant, Tesco plc, recently stated in an email sent to their millions of on-line customers in the UK; “Today I make you a promise. Tesco is going to bring the food we sell closer to home. We're going to make how we source our food simpler, more transparent and shorter, and we will build better relationships with our nation's famers.  We are the UK's biggest retailer, the biggest customer of UK agriculture and I firmly believe that we should be the best supporter of British farmers.” 
Mitigating supply chain risk is front and centre - not only on the agenda for retailers, but for manufacturers too; it is their product and brand name on the supermarket shelves and they are as equally affected by the need to ensure that their food is safe and sustainable whilst also protecting their brand reputation. And in the end it is all about trust. Consumers have to trust that all products sold in supermarkets and served in restaurants are safe.

Q: So what about the suppliers who are producing the goods for the manufacturers which end up on our supermarket shelves? 

CG: What has once again come to light over the past few months is that the biggest risk can often lie in the smaller parts of the chain - indeed, the horsemeat scandal has brought this to life.  So having a transparent supply chain and being able to trace our food from farm to fork or chopstick is fundamentally linked to its safety.

Across the global food supply chain, there is a discernible shift by retailers and manufacturers away from simplistic checklist-based food safety inspections to the adoption of the following approaches;

o The first is that retailers and manufacturers are now stipulating that their suppliers have mandatory 3rd party certification against a GFSI-recognised certification scheme.  This approach really highlights the work that the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) has achieved.  Started some 12 years ago by retailers and manufacturers in the wake of food safety scares when consumer confidence was at one of the all-time lows, the GFSI has led the harmonisation of standards and schemes from over 100 down to 10 today.  With a strapline of ‘certified once, accepted everywhere’ this GFSI-led initiative has given the confidence to retailers and manufacturers to say ‘if you are recognised to a GFSI-recognised standard, that’s good enough for us and we will accept you as a supplier.”

o The second approach is that the retailers and manufacturers are adopting a mix of both 2nd and 3rd party certification.  Whilst the model described above - straight 3rd party certification - is accepted for what are perceived as the basic minimum requirements for food safety, what is emerging is that some organisations within these two stakeholder groups are saying that in effect there are two groups of suppliers.  These can be categorised based both on the inherent risk of the ingredients being supplied and on the different risks presented by established supplier relationships compared with a new supplier - often from some of the world’s developing markets.  These emerging suppliers can also benefit from a GFSI-led initiative, specifically the GFSI Capacity Building Programme which is delivering tools to the world’s smaller suppliers to ensure that they meet the global requirements for food safety and achieve certification to GFSI-recognised standards and schemes in a shorter timeframe.  This approach is delivering increased levels of assurance to manufacturers and retailers alike who can see that suppliers across their global supply chains are delivering against and are certified to a GFSI-recognised scheme for food safety.

Food Authorities also show an increasing interest in 3rd party certification. As they have limited resources to audit and review all food supply chain organisations the use of 3rd party audit reports can support them to allocate their resources more efficiently.

Q: Are manufacturers increasingly turning towards customised assurance?

CG: Increasingly – yes.  In parallel, many manufacturers are looking at what they perceive to be their biggest risk in their global food supply chain and are asking those suppliers to take part in an additional 2nd Party audit.  Put simply, this means that if a supplier is FSSC 22000 certified for example, they also need to meet the specific requirements of the manufacturer to add an increased level of food safety and supplier assurance. The advantage is that when all manufacturers and retailers ask for one of the 3rd party GFSI recognised certificates as the basis, the additional audit only has to cover the additional client requirements. This saves considerable time and costs.

This hybrid approach of mixing 2nd and 3rd party certification is increasingly being used by some of the world’s biggest brands to ensure that their products are produced in a safe and sustainable way, thereby delivering increased brand reputation and consumer confidence. 

Q: What’s your key message that you would like to finish this interview with, Cor?

CG: Put simply, food safety is not a competitive issue.  It is in the interests of stakeholders across the global food supply chain to work together to ensure that consumers are confident that their food is safe to eat and has been produced in a sustainable manner.  The globalisation of supply chains and the need for transparency and traceability has trigged changes in the way in which food safety is approached - changes which can only be for the better.


Cor will be one of the key note speakers at the upcoming International Food Safety & Quality Network (IFSQN) Food Safety Live 2013 – the world’s first online food safety learning and networking conference to be held on June 26.  Click here to register.

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