It is not only the food safety audit, but how that audit is done that retailers are increasingly interested in, food safety experts said.
Just as Brampton, Ontario-based Loblaw Cos. Ltd. recently asked its Canadian suppliers to become CanadaGAP-certified, some U.S. retailers over the past 18 months have begun to ask their suppliers to become compliant with audits that are globally benchmarked, according to Bob Whitaker, science officer for the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association.
He said retailers have been focused mainly on the Global Food Safety Initiative but also GlobalGAP.
GlobalGAP and GFSI announced in February the two groups were beginning a process to align the two benchmarking criteria to provide equivalent results.
"The trend toward complete standards that define not only the content but also the process for how the audit will be conducted is very real," Whitaker said. "I think you will see more and more of that happening as time goes on."
The focus is not only standardizing the processing but also in reducing duplicative audits and unnecessary cost in the food chain.
Whitaker said the number of audits a supplier must undergo depends on the crop produced and the size of the operation. Facility audits may run six to eight per year for a typical operation, and farm level audits may run two to three per year.
"The food chain is getting a multitude of inspections," said Roy Costa, food safety consultant with Environ Health Associates Inc., DeLand, Fla.
"You have some people getting 12 or more private entities coming in a year under different standards and it has become very burdensome for a lot of folks," he said.
"A lot of these companies have to maintain in-house staff just to deal with the auditors."
Follow the trend
Wal-Mart, Price Chopper and Kroger Co. are among U.S. retailers who have asked suppliers to be certified by a Global Food Safety Initiative benchmark audit, said Bill Greer, spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based Food Marketing Institute.
"The attraction is that it is not just the audit that is part of the food safety standard, but that it is a complete food safety system," Whitaker said.
The GFSI looks at the training of auditors and the protocols for how an auditor is supposed to behave when they do an audit, he said.
"You can see why that program has an appeal because it gives a sense of security to the buying side that at least a procedure is being followed."
David Gombas, senior vice president for food safety and technology for United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C., said is not aware of any North American retailer strictly enforcing a certification requirement yet.
In February 2008, Wal-Mart said its suppliers will be required to complete full certification by GFIS this year.
For producers, SQF 1000 and GlobalGAP are the only two audits that are GFSI benchmarked, Gombas said.
Whitaker said more third-party audit companies will receive recognition from GFSI and GlobalGAP.
"The more third-party certifiers who can get recognition for their programs, the better off the industry is going to be," he said.
Gombas said only four audit programs have been recognized by GFSI. Three have been based in Europe, and SQF is based in Arlington, Va.