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Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Summation from an Industry GFSI Discussion Event on April 1, 2016

The discussion gave me the opportunity to confirm some thoughts that I have held regarding GFSI and its scheme certification focus. I believe, first of all, that GFSI intentions are good but the emphasis on commoditized certification schemes appears to be too narrowly focused.

With a painful restraint during this event, I avoided what could have amounted to hijacking the discussions as planned by the organizers. I did not raise any of my usual concerns about the GFSI scheme certification focus and process with suggestions of less cost-intensive alternatives. It was not the time, the place or the forum for raising such concerns. If a discussion point about possible alternatives to GFSI scheme certification had been on the agenda, I might have made further suggestions. For good reasons, and with respect to the invited audience, I saw any discussion of alternatives as a different subject from what was planned for the event.

The audience at the discussion would not have been as sympathetic with suggestions of less cost-intensive alternatives because a number of participants stood to profit from the promotion of GFSI schemes. As such, any thought that seriously challenged the justification for the GFSI process with respect to SMEs (Small to Medium Establishments) would have been countered with disruptive sentiments. Those who actually bear the costs of program implementation, on the other hand, would have been more open to discussing less costly alternatives that do not undermine the goals of assuring the safety and quality of food.

Even GFSI recognizes the disparity between the rich and sophisticated operations and their less privileged competitors. This recognition formed the basis for the Global Markets Program. Unfortunately, the intention, with this program remains focused on eventual certification without considerations given to the cost of engaging in the development process. In fact, it is reasonable to project that operations enlisting in the Global Markets Program could end up spending more money in the long run than if they were to immediately proceed with the actual certification process.
The member of the organizing team who led the discussions of Group 3 (Meats) of which I was part, could probably attest to the fact that I made some suggestions about obtaining free information and guidance. Some of the participants cautioned that “free offers” could cause the recipients to undervalue what is offered. While I agree with this caution to some extent, my past and current interactions with the SMEs that are likely to become engaged in the proposed industry development initiatives force me to think otherwise. These establishments would like free offers, put up with low-cost but effective options, and shun cost-intensive propositions. A majority of the prospective establishments, irrespective of the sector, would feel antagonized and be frightened by the costs (time and required resources) involved in the GFSI scheme certification process.

I have been widely engaged in the food industry, and for long enough, to know that certain assumptions about food safety and quality management success with the GFSI types of private certification schemes are often misleading. With these schemes, some conclusions about the success achieved lean more towards being imagined or virtual than quantified. Expanding participation, instead of actual data showing a reduction in food safety failure incidents, is often cited as success.

On the one hand, both “compliance” and “certification” do not automatically equate to operator commitment. On the other hand, with good foundations of internalized commitment laid through regulatory oversight and compliance that are non-negotiable, voluntary certification to GFSI schemes and the like are easily and quickly attainable. In every case however, food businesses actually need the effective and quantitatively verifiable mitigation of undesirable food safety and quality incidents more than they need certification. Besides, if there has been any reduction in food safety and quality failure incidents, the reduction has not been, nor can it be attributed to the advent of GFSI schemes. Given the number and variety of recurring recalls even in GFSI-heavy regions of the world, I doubt there has been any reduction in food safety and quality failures since the introduction of GFSI schemes in 2000.

I believe that the typically cash-strapped SMEs can be helped through ways that are less intimidating and financially frightening. In other words, the same desired food safety and quality standards can be achieved through approaches and strategies that are less cost-intensive than the GFSI scheme certification process. In my opinion, the potential loss of business, where customers mandate GFSI scheme certification is make-belief. I have seen different realities at play. The customers that typically demand GFSI certifications are also astute enough not to rely completely on the certificates if at all they rely on them.
Posted by Felix Amiri
Felix Amiri is currently the chair of GCSE-Food & Health Protection, and a sworn SSQA advocate.

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