Global food safety: the role of the food industry

The Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) was started by a group of retailers in Europe in 2000 to tackle the issue of different safety standards applied in the region. They were subsequently joined by manufacturers, certification and accreditation bodies, academics, international organisations and food service companies like McDonalds.

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GFSI aims to drive improvement in food safety practices throughout the supply chain to ensure safe food for consumers everywhere. The organisation brings experts together in conferences, network gatherings and technical working groups to pursue its objectives. Improving safety systems not only protects consumers but also reduces costs by preventing recalls and minimising duplication of audits. Since auditor competency is a crucial safety factor, GFSI runs a technical working group which collaborates with certification bodies to ensure maximum audit reliability. This area of growing importance in GFSI’s public-private partnership strategy will enable governments with overstretched resources to do fewer inspections in companies with certain GFSI certificates. The reasoning is that a production unit audited under a GFSI scheme presents a lower safety risk than an unaudited (or less thoroughly audited) plant. With fewer audits there is less pressure on the authorities and the companies save money. The Dutch government has recently recognised two GFSI schemes as justifying fewer government audits, and the GFSI is in discussion with the FDA about similar action regarding the new FSMA food safety rules in the USA.

To implement its global strategy, GFSI works through six local groups in different regions. Good progress is being made in China through cooperation with the government and industry, though the country still presents a major food-safety challenge. At the global level, the differences between national food regulations create difficulties especially for internationally active companies, and GFSI aims to work more intensively on this in the future.

At intervals, GFSI issues a Benchmarking Requirements document, which describes in detail the minimum safety level that companies have to reach to obtain a certificate. Six versions have been published so far, each one raising the bar with regard to the requirements to be met. Version seven, which will be issued soon, contains a new section on food fraud. This stipulates, among other requirements, that companies have to have a fraud management system in place and must do vulnerability assessments for their supply chains. With regard to safety as well as potential fraud, GFSI stresses the vital importance of supply chain transparency.

Since it is more difficult for small companies than for large ones to obtain certification, GFSI has launched its Global Market Programme, in collaboration with UNIDO, to help small producers take a first step towards certification. GFSI has also launched a working programme on food safety culture to promote deeper understanding of the safety requirements and the reasons why compliance is vital.