Food safety is getting an unprecedented amount of attention these days.  With the internet and social networking available to almost every facet of society, outbreaks of food-borne illnesses are being reported at record rates.

Not surprisingly, the number of suppliers, distributors, and manufacturers of food products associated with these outbreaks has also increased, leading governments to increase oversight and regulation, costing companies and consumers billions of dollars in added expense.  Even with quality management systems such as the Safe Quality Food Program and standards to guide the industry, prevention must remain front and center when setting up the testing, inspection, and documentation systems required in order to avoid having tainted food reach the consumer.

The Public Demands Safe Food on its Table

Companies who violate that trust, even unwittingly, can find themselves with lost market share or the subject of negative publicity.  It can take years for a company can recover from the effects of one food-borne illness associated with its brand.  That’s why prevention, in the form of the strictest of quality control programs from raw material suppliers through delivery and distribution systems, must be the focus of every organization that supplies food to the public.

With increased reporting and investigation of food-related illnesses comes increased government intervention and regulation, which leads to even more outbreaks being detected.  The most recent of these new regulations, the Food Safety Modernization act of 2011 in the United States, is just the latest example of a government reacting to preventable outbreaks due to food contamination with a strong set of regulations. This act, overseen by the US Department of Agriculture, requires mandatory Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Point (HACCP) documentation for every variety of seafood, meat, poultry, juice, and dairy product under its jurisdiction.

Not only does this increase the operating costs and insurance rates for businesses in the food industry, but it may have the added effect of changing the specifications for food products, altering and adding to the auditing processes already in place.

The Food Industry Gets Together

The Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) was created in 2000 to deal with the increasing issues surrounding food safety.  GFSI is a world-wide consortium of retailers, suppliers, and food manufacturers that benchmarks food safety standards, and has set out standards and best practices within the industry that are almost universally accepted.  One of the mainstays of the GFSI is the Safe Quality Foods (SQF) program, a food safety certification program with three levels of qualification, each with increasing rigor regarding the analysis, management, testing, and documentation of food quality and safety.

SQF Level 2 is a risk analysis and hazards management plan using the HACCP approach, while Level 3 adds food quality to the safety aspects managed in Level 2 programs.  Both levels 2 and 3 are recognized by GFSI to achieve registration.

A similar food safety and quality program has been developed by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) as ISO 22000.  Developed to work in conjunction with an existing ISO 9001 quality management system program, ISO 22000 is a Food Safety Management System Certification process that is also based on HACCP analysis.  The ISO standard is a little less regimented than the SQF program in that there is no specific set of prerequisite programs required for ISO like there is for SQF, which allows each supplier and producer some flexibility in how the program is implemented.  The ISO 22000 program is not recognized by GFSI, but a similar program, FSSC 22000, is.

In either case, whether a food industry producer or supplier chooses to develop and adhere to the standards laid out by the SQF program or ISO 22000, the focus of the program must be prevention if it is to avoid the negative aspects associated with a food-borne illness and its brand.

That means exacting standards, inspections, testing, and documentation must be in place for all raw materials suppliers, packagers, handlers, employees, transportation, warehousing and distribution, and point-of-sale retailers that contact the product in any way.  A business should insist that all of these groups adhere to the standards set forth by GFSI, and have programs in place where applicable that have been certified by a third-party auditor.

Having strict quality management systems in place like these gives a business its best chance of stopping an outbreak of illness related to contamination of its products before it begins.