Nowadays, all major produce buyers require some type of third-party certification to ensure that the product they’re buying is safe, and industry experts believe it’s only a matter of time until all suppliers will be expected to produce such certification.

But choosing the appropriate audit and the right certifying body isn’t always easy.

Basically an audit is “a third party coming in and verifying that you’re doing what you say you’re doing,” said Walter Ram, vice president of food safety at Los Angeles-based The Giumarra Cos.

The third-party auditing system is a private sector approach to food safety, added Robert Stovicek, president of PrimusLabs, Santa Maria, Calif. It augments, but does not replace the regulatory agencies’ enforcement function.

“The third-party audit is a confirmation that the operation is functioning under the industry’s standard practices,” he said.

“The government establishes the minimum standards, and the buyers and suppliers establish practices that exceed those standards,” Stovicek said. “It’s the auditor’s role to “observe and report.”

 

Step one

The first step a grower-shipper should take in the certification process is to choose an audit type that is appropriate for its operation and that meets its customers’ requirements, Ram said.

For example, a farm will require one type of audit while a packinghouse will need another.

Some customers require GFSI benchmark audits that meet the standards of the Global Food Safety Initiative, such as Canada GAP, GlobalGAP, PrimusGFS, BRC, FSSC 22000 and SQF, he said.

GFSI evaluates audit standards only, not individual certifying bodies, Ram pointed out.

Even food safety standards that are not GFSI benchmarked including good agricultural practices, good manufacturing practices and Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point programs — are very effective, Ram said.

They are all based on the same science.

“You want to evaluate them and see which one works the best for you and your operation,” he said.

A relatively small supplier that is serving local customers may not need a GFSI-benchmarked audit, he said. A U.S. Department of Agriculture GAP audit, which is not GFSI-benchmarked, may be more than adequate to meet its needs, Ram said,

It’s a good idea to check with your customers to be sure they’re OK with the audit type you chose, he said.

Familiarity a must

The auditing firm must be knowledgeable about a company’s products and process, agreed Will Daniels, chief food integrity officer for Earthbound Farm, San Juan Bautista, Calif.

“Beyond that, they must demonstrate competence through auditor training, ISO accreditation and their overall system,” he said.

 Sometimes, companies don’t find out whether the auditing firm has competency in the product and process that needs to be audited, he said.

The competency of the auditor is critical, Daniels said.

Earthbound Farm uses an auditing firm that hires only industry veterans, he said, “so they already know the industry, its issues, and where to dig deep.” 

Earthbound Farm has been third-party audited since the mid-nineties, he said.   

 Ask what other services the certifying body provides — like laboratory services or audits outside the food safety arena that might be of interest to your operation, Ram suggested.

Consider how well you get along with the company’s representatives and evaluate their customer service.

And don’t be surprised if you can’t schedule an audit right away, Ram warned.

“The demand for auditors is rising and is likely to go up even higher in the future,” he said.

That means it could be months before your audit will take place.

Producers that require multiple auditing and certifications can save costs by selecting an accredited third-party certifier that can bundle multiple audits and certifications such as GFSI, GAP, organic, non-GMO, animal welfare and sustainability, said Jackie Bowen, agriculture general manager at NSF.

“NSF International developed a Multiple Audit Program several years ago for this reason, and our customers have been able to reduce costs and disruptions to operations by bundling all their certifications and audits through NSF International,” she said.

 

Be prepared

Preparing for the audit itself doesn’t have to be a hassle.

The key is “being organized and ready for the auditors,” Ram said.

Throughout the year, keep documentation up to date and maintain it in a way so it is easily accessible.

“Documentation is a big part of an audit,” Ram said.

Cost of a field audit usually varies from about $400 to $2,000 but typically falls into the $650 to $1,200 range. A facility audit usually ranges from $750 to $1,500, but prices easily can be much higher, depending on factors like the standard chosen and the number of fields a farm has.

Finally, be aware that these prices don’t include expenses, including travel and hotel accommodations.

Those can vary depending on how far the auditors must travel and how long the audit(s) take to conduct.

Finally, Daniels emphasized that an audit does not equal food safety.

“The audit is intended to verify that you have control of your program and its risks,” he said.

“The audit is a snapshot in time and should only be used to evaluate the process on that day,” he said. “It’s not a shield ensuring that it’s safe until the next audit.”