Auditor competence, certificate fraud and supporting smaller food companies were some of the main topics discussed at the recent GFSI Conference.

The Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) conference in Spain had 600 registrants from 50 countries.

In late 2021, GFSI created a set of benchmarking requirements for food safety auditor Professional Recognition Bodies (PRB) that will register auditors. The aim is to support improvement in food safety auditor competence and ongoing professional development. Certification program owners (CPO) and certification bodies can use registration to a GFSI-recognized PRB as evidence of an auditor’s competence.

A pilot program has been launched with Exemplar Global, which applied to be a GFSI-recognized PRB, and CPOs including FSSC 22000, BRC Global and SQFI, will test the new model, which should be in place by 2023 and 2024. By 2024, 8,000 auditors could be registered to a GFSI-recognized PRB.

Marie-Claude Quentin, from GFSI, said auditor competence had been an issue for many years with various things tried to fix it.

“The process was too complex and it drove good people away from the profession. Now we are simplifying it regardless of the standard being auditing against. It will replace the checks people are subject to today and includes ongoing monitoring and support. Introducing continuous professional development will attract talent and create better audits,” she said.

Attendees heard that auditors are on the frontline of food safety verification with panelists saying there is increasing demand for their services compounded by many leaving or retiring from the sector. The current situation risks a shortage that could impact food safety.

Certificate fraud example
Another session at the conference covered the problem of trust in the GFSI brand, especially certificate fraud, and included an example given by a Spanish saffron company.

Participants discuss issues during the session on certificate fraud. Photo courtesy of GFSI

Erica Sheward, GFSI director, said an assessment of the issue found a lot of companies trying to use the group’s brand.

“We have been overwhelmed with spurious claims and had to ask them to stop doing things associated with GFSI,” she said. “We have now turned our attention to those in our community. You can’t ask people to trust us and not deal with stuff like this. The GFSI logo or name doesn’t appear on a certificate.”

In the Spanish case, which included law enforcement agencies, Sheward said the certification body actually didn’t exist but looked like it was in Germany and those behind it weren’t in the country they appeared to come from.

Sandra Sirera, of Verdú Cantó Saffron, said the incident prompted them to ask GFSI for a way to verify certificates to check if they are real or not. In 2021, GFSI brought in Webnet to develop a platform for organizations certified to a GFSI-recognized program.

David Lovell, from DSL Consulting, said work has been going on in the past 18 months to look at the scale of the problem.

They found cases of domain registration — where companies are buying names with GFSI in the address, social media and web-content violations, issues on online marketplaces such as Amazon and Alibaba, and mobile apps with the GFSI logo or name attached.

“The problem and resources you need to deal with it grow as the brand grows. Other organizations are on the receiving end of this abuse such as regulators and certification program owners. We have seen training providers saying they work in partnership with GFSI but that is not the case. GFSI has a different relationship with online marketplaces than regulators, as they are our members, we can speak to CEOs and senior people and we both want same thing, we don’t want abuse of logos or poor quality products,” said Lovell.

GFSI’s COVID-19 position, as of March 2022, was to allow certificate extension, based on a risk assessment, for up to six months when travel restrictions linked to the pandemic impede an audit. In 2020 and 2021, almost all certificates issued against a GFSI-recognized program benefited from an extension.

The Global Markets Program, which is currently being revamped, offers a pathway to certification for smaller food firms.

A consultation on it closed recently with Anne Gerardi, from GFSI, telling attendees that more than 70 submissions had been received and workshops with regulators were held during annual Government to Business meetings. Gerardi said work on the new capability building framework will take a few more months. It will then be piloted for six months and the impact will be measured.

The Science and Technology Advisory Group discussed an upcoming report. Photo courtesy of GFSI

Focus on science and technology
David Crean, chair of the GFSI Science and Technology Advisory Group, launched in July 2021, said a report would be coming soon covering five areas including emerging foodborne pathogens and big data in food safety.

Francisco Diaz-Gonzalez, from the University of Georgia, highlighted some of the most pressing issues including antimicrobial resistant organisms, E. coli O104:H4 and parasites such as Cyclospora and cryptosporidium.

Big data has started to revolutionize some areas of food safety and metagenomics is another tool with potential, said Jeff Farber, of the University of Guelph.

“Most regulatory agencies are using WGS to type pathogens from clinical samples and food. This is leading to faster food recalls, stopping outbreaks and focusing resources on the problems. WGS tools cannot do away with epidemiology and traceback investigations, it goes hand in hand and will always be needed in investigations. In the food area we tend to be conservative and behind the medical sector,” he said.

“There will be disadvantages. Even with WGS, a lot of companies are hesitant to share data of isolates because they don’t trust regulatory agencies. Change will come but it is a stepwise process. There is a big push to standardize techniques.

“In terms of traceability, blockchain to trace food products back to source is starting to be used more frequently and risk-based inspection models are using all the data you can get to focus resources. Machine learning on risk-based inspection data can help focus in on what foods to concentrate on. Predictive models and analytics is another area, as is using social media for early warning and mitigation of foodborne outbreaks.

“The use of big data may not always lead to improvements right away. A middle sized business needs to recognize when and where it makes sense to use big data and have mechanisms to take decisions based on the output of data analytics.”

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