By Gary Fread

One of the issues we hear about periodically in the Agri-Food Sector is food safety. The news media quickly picks up on stories related to food safety, whether they are actual recalls or just warnings of potential hazards, for example, that a garden ­veg­etable or herb from a specific geographic origin may contain bacteria that are dangerous to human health. Much has been done in the past few decades to prevent such problems from occurring, and we will discuss the major tool in accomplishing the level of prevention required. But first, what is a food safety hazard?

Poor food safety occurs as a result of hazards in food or the condition of the food with the potential to cause adverse health effects. These hazards are most often bacterial such as listeria or e. coli, or they may be a chemical residue or even physical fragments, e.g. glass or metal fragments. If temperature is not controlled properly, conditions may be created to lead to contamination further down the supply chain. We have had many examples of bacterial contamination causing illness and deaths such as listeria in meats or e.coli in fresh salad greens.  The two chemical contaminations that stand out in recent memory are the occurrence of melamine, a residue chemical, in pet foods, or bisphenol A, a residue from some plastics production that transferred from the container to the contents.

In Canada, as many as 11-13 million occurrences of food poisoning in individuals may be reported in a year. Most are not serious, e.g. diarrhea, and the vast majority occur in-home caused by either poor storage temperatures, storing beyond the Best Before date, or contamination during handling and preparation.  Much of this could be avoided by better education in schools on safe food handling.  Canada is not unusual, and the rate of occurrences in developed economies is similar.

For companies in the food industry food safety is, at very least, a huge financial risk management issue. Even if no one is harmed, the cost of a recall is high. If someone is harmed, the cost of liability can be so great that the company goes out of business. At very least, the reputation of the company can be seriously compromised, and this can continue for years. How is this risk addressed? It is addressed by implementing HACCP-based food safety programs at all levels of the supply chain.

What exactly are HACCP-based food safety programs? HACCP stands for Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points. The system had its origins in the ideas related to continuous process improvement put forth by such men as W. Edwards Deming and Joseph Juran thirty plus years ago. It involves mapping the process and determining what might go wrong in the process, where and how it could be prevented from happening, and how the process could be controlled effectively.

The principles are fairly straightforward:

1. Conduct a hazard analysis of the process (what might go wrong?),

2.  Determine the Critical Control Points or CCPs,

3. Establish the critical limits on variation from the target that can be allowed safely,

4. Establish a system to monitor the CCP,

5. Establish the corrective action to be taken when the monitor indicates the CCP is not under control,

6. Establish procedures for verification that the HACCP system is working effectively (e.g. a lab test), and,

7. Establish documentation concerning all procedures and records appropriate to these principles and their application.

There are guidelines for application of the HACCP system to a process. These include:

1. Assemble a HACCP team (i.e. those working in the process) and a HACCP leader,

2. Describe the product,

3. Identify its intended uses,

4. Construct a flow diagram of the process,

5. Do on-site verification of the flow diagram’s accuracy,

6. List all potential hazards associated with each step, conduct a hazard analysis, and consider all measures that could be used to control the hazards,

7. Determine the Critical Control Points,

8. Establish critical limits for each CCP,

9. Establish a monitoring system for each CCP,

10. Establish corrective actions,

11. Establish verification procedures,

12. Establish documentation and record keeping procedures.

The process can be somewhat complex in complicated manufacturing processes, but the logic is not dissimilar to continuous process improvement quality systems. Usually, the HACCP leader requires training and, usually, the Quality Assurance staff does the oversight of the system’s operations.

The HACCP approach was originally developed by the United Nations’ Codex Alimentarius Commission which is part of the Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO). In Canada, HACCP takes the form of the Food Safety Enhancement Program (FSEP) developed and administered by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) for food plants shipping inter-provincially or export. For food plants shipping intra-provincially, FSEP is supplemented by provincial programs (e.g. HACCP Advantage in Ontario). In addition, other organizations in the supply chain have created their own programs, such as the Canadian Trucking Association, Canadian food retailers, agricultural producer groups, and so on.  This is good since it extends the system to the complete supply chain when implemented.

The downside to all this is that each country has its own system and they were not harmonized when implemented, and this has made international trade more complex. For example, Canadian food processors shipping to the U.S., though certified to FSEP in Canada, were being required by their customers (e.g. retail grocery chains) to also be certified to the Safe Quality Food (SQF) program created by the Food Marketing Institute. If that same processor was also shipping to Europe, a British grocery chain likely required certification to the British Retail Consortium (BRC) standard; in Germany, the International Food Standard (IFS) and so on. Some companies were audited and certified to three or four standards at a very high cost per year.

To alleviate these complexities and cost structures, the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) was launched in May 2000, through the efforts of a group of international retailer CEOs. The idea was to harmonize the various HACCP programs and arrive at a global standard. What has happened is that the standards have been benchmarked and, where possible, determined to be equivalent. It has been taken up by the Consumer Goods Forum, a global industry network of food retailers and manufacturers with combined sales of 2.1 trillion euros.

GFSI’s mission is continuous improvement in food safety management systems to ensure confidence in the delivery of safe food to consumers. The objectives are to:

1) Create convergence between food safety standards through maintaining a benchmarking process for food safety management schemes

2) Improve the cost efficiency throughout the food supply chain through the common acceptance of GFSI recognized standards by retailers around the world, and,

3) Provide a unique international stakeholder platform for networking, knowledge exchange and sharing of best food safety practices and information.

GFSI now recognizes the equivalence of: SQF (U.S.), BRC (British), FSSC 22000 (ISO 22000 plus prerequisite programs not included in ISO 22000), IFS (Europe), Global GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) and Dutch HACCP. Also included are Canada GAP (created by the Canadian Horticulture Council for fruit and vegetable growers), and the GAA Seafood Processing Standard. Most global retail chains now accept any of these, so a processor shipping to both the U.S. and Britain, who is certified to SQF or BRC, is able to ship to either country. This has simplified the food safety process and made it much more affordable to all.

The present vision is to create a continuous linking of HACCP-based food safety programs all the way from farm operations to retail operations selling food, and a level of value chain collaboration that makes it effective. So, is this happening?  On-farm food safety (OFFS) is happening in Canada. Most major commodities have OFFS programs with rates of participation in the 85- to 100-per-cent range. These include horticulture, chicken, pork, eggs, to name a few. In addition, the Packaging Association has developed a HACCP-based system for production of food grade packaging and is in the process of obtaining GFSI recognition.

As to logistics, the Canadian Trucking Association has its Trucking Food Safety Program developed in consultation with CFIA covering the whole trucking chain from movement of live animals to retail delivery vans. There is nothing official from the warehouse associations, but several of the GFSI standards include warehousing modules (e.g. SQF, BRC, and ISO).

The other implied capability to link food safety systems is traceability. Again, there are a number of traceability programs in place, but not all are yet compatible. Recalls require fast tracing of the origins of a product, often back to the grower. Organizations like GS1, iCIX, TraceTracker and others are addressing this, but it is a huge issue. Stand by. It will evolve, and fairly quickly, I believe.

So what should organizations in the logistics supply chain be doing? Food companies will be trying to make sure that their supply chains are also covered by a recognized HACCP program, not just their processing plants.  Transportation and warehousing service providers should be getting certified to a recognized HACCP program – GFSI recognized, if possible.

In logistics, the major impact will be focused on temperature controlled products and will require monitoring of temperatures and time held at each location. For shelf-stable products, there isn’t a lot more involved than proper damage control and proper inventory rotation. You’re probably already doing that. It will just take correct documentation and verification. In other words, the biggest cost will be the cost of certifications as required.

It is a necessary step forward, and the right thing to do.

Gary Fread is President of Fread and Associates Ltd., consultants to the Food Industry. He may be contacted at his office in Milton, Ontario (416-505-5434).