The landscape for food safety is going through some of the most significant changes ever in the context of legislative action, regulatory enforcement, consumer wariness, and industry accountability. With these changes comes greater expectations and greater risks of damaged brands and significant legal consequences when something goes wrong that results in illness or death.

David Acheson, former Assistant Commissioner of Food at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), recently wrote in Quality Assurance & Food Safety that one private sector reaction to this increased focus on food safety is the growing use of third party audits.  These audits, done to exacting standards that are overseen by an international body of experienced food safety experts, provide firms with a certificate to prove that suppliers have been audited and that those suppliers passed audits with a high grade.  Companies use such audits to offer a “guarantee” that all is well with their supply chains.

apple-processing1-featured.jpgThird party audits can play a valuable role in improving food safety and reducing risk when appropriate standards are used and adhered to.  Firms and retailers use these audits to send a clear signal to suppliers that certain criteria have to be met before goods are accepted.

Firms using third-party audits expect to find real or potential problems before they lead to foodborne illness and see this extra step as a way to raise the standards for producing safe food.  Changing legislative and regulatory dynamics in Washington, D.C. have indicated that third party audits can be an important part of a company’s food safety plan.

FDA has signaled that it is willing to entertain the use of third party audits for imported foods in order to meet the inspection requirements laid out in S. 510, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act currently pending in the Senate. The third party auditors can do what the agency does not have the resources to do–address risks associated with imported food before it is at the border.  The FDA, however, is concerned with ensuring that adequate standards are being used and that audits are conducted to those standards.

In the Food Quality Magazine article, Acheson stressed the necessity for companies, their suppliers, and third-party auditors to have a focus on food safety–not just on the fact that an audit was conducted:  “Changing expectations and regulations around food safety bring opportunity for many, including private third party auditors. The setting of clear standards is a great start but like basic food safety, if the firm does not have a food safety culture, there will be problems at some point, and if the auditor is not doing the audit well–however painful that may be for the firm being audited–the system will unravel, opportunities will be lost and trust will be hard to rebuild.”

FDA has not signaled a willingness to use auditors for domestic food safety.  A combination of federal, state, and local regulators will continue to be used in that role.