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ISO and HACCP: These standards can help avoid food safety disasters

Certification is necessary to do business in international markets

4-minute read

The food industry isn’t lacking for grim reminders of the damage a safety problem can do to public health—and a company's bottom line.

From romaine lettuce to chicken nuggets and frozen fish, a variety of foods have been recalled in recent years due to bacteria, viruses or parasites.

The federal government has estimated there are about 4 million cases of foodborne illness in Canada every year, and 240 deaths occur yearly due to food-related illnesses.

For example, a listeria outbreak claimed 22 lives and prompted a massive recall of cheeses and sandwich meats in 2008.

Chocolate bars laced with plastic, melamine-contaminated pet food from China, and salmonella-tainted peanuts, pistachios and spinach from the United States are other examples of food recalls .

All of these scares have added impetus for everyone in the processing chain—from grower to distributor—to meet stringent safety standards.

Why get certified?

Beyond regulatory requirements, compliance to food safety standards is voluntary, but it's often in a firm's best interest to get certified.

Certification is a must for businesses that want to sell their products in international markets.

Major buyers such as supermarket chains are also increasingly demanding certification from their suppliers, even those doing business strictly within Canada.

Worldwide food safety norms

Meat, fish and poultry producers, the industry players considered most vulnerable to contamination and other health hazards, have long been inspected regularly by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. There's also a patchwork of municipal and provincial food inspection systems.

But until the 2008 enactment of ISO 22000—the food safety norms of the Geneva-based International Standards Organization (ISO)—most food processers relied on a system of self-policing to ensure their product was safe.

The guidelines they used—known as HACCP, or Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points—were developed by the U.S. food industry in the 1960s to ensure that the food sent on the first space missions was 100% safe. Those norms were then gradually modernized and adopted in countries around the world.

Now an updated version of these voluntary guidelines has been blended with the ISO's business management standards to create worldwide food safety norms that are subject to third-party verification.

Savings that outweigh the costs

It typically takes eight to 10 months for a business to comply with the standard.

On top of fees, implementing the changes required to become compliant can sometimes entail significant capital costs for a company. It may even require construction of a new facility.

However, once all the changes have been implemented, a business will often find that it reaps considerable savings, since costly but unnecessary procedures can sometimes be eliminated as a result of the audit.

Also, once major customers such as supermarket chains can rely on standardized third-party inspections, they can send fewer of their own inspectors to ensure a supplier is up to snuff. That works to the advantage of the company, since every visit to sensitive areas of a food-processing plant increases the risk of contamination.

Start with a gap analysis

A BDC expert generally starts with a "gap analysis" to determine where a company's current practices fall short of ISO food safety norms. To earn certification, a firm must document all cleaning and maintenance of machinery, the time and destination of all shipments and the expiry dates of the food involved, so that problem shipments can be quickly traced.

The most common problems usually involve traceability, cleanliness and maintenance.

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