The number of food factories certified to the BRC Global Standard for Food Safety is up more than 20 per cent on last year to 13,923 but doubts remain over the quality of the audits.
Richard Dodd of the BRC (British Retail Consortium) said the higher numbers represent a “strong vote of confidence” in the standard.
But they have not stopped UK supermarkets from maintaining or reintroducing their own food safety standards and audits.
Sainsbury’s, for example, said the BRC is “very important as an entry level standard” but that the supermarket has additional requirements in a variety of areas including quality and safety. It claims these allow Sainsbury’s to differentiate itself from competitors.
However, the original purpose of the BRC standard had been to free supermarkets from the need to check up on their suppliers’ safety systems and allow them to focus on brand and development issues.
One quality assurance manager told FoodProductionDaily.com that supermarket audits are on the rise because of concern that BRC audits are not robust enough.
“The supermarkets are concerned that too many suppliers are passing the audit with flying colours. They had a feeling that this was not a true reflection of the reality in the food industry.”
Jo Head, a quality management consultant, said the source of concern is not with the BRC Standard itself but rather with the auditing.
She told FoodProductionDaily.com: “The toughness of BRC auditors is variable… There needs to be some mechanism in place to ensure consistency. Having a BRC certificate should mean the same thing across the industry.”
Head, who has advised the FSA (Food Standards Agency) on food safety issues related to meat, said the supermarkets have much more robust audits. She made two key recommendations to restore confidence in the BRC certificate:
1. More involved and detailed guidance for auditors and auditees on the audit process
2. The creation of an independent body that checks up on the quality of audits
Head added that a culture shift is needed in auditing so that the question asked is not “Have you got a system?” but rather “Is the system working”.
The BRC defended the quality of its audits, saying: “All of our certification bodies are UK Accreditation Service approved – elsewhere by other national accreditation bodies. We have a rigorous certification body compliance monitoring process with six-monthly performance reporting to assess how auditing is being carried out.
“The assessment focuses on audit consistency and the training and competence of auditors. We will and do suspend certification bodies who are not auditing correctly.
“The BRC Directory now also allows audit/auditor trends to be analysed and ensures that all audit reports are visible to the BRC for assessment.”
The BRC Global Standard for Food Safety is currently being reviewed ahead of the publication of version six this summer.
Jerry Houseago at Cert ID Europe, a third party certification company, said the review, which occurs every three years, gives the BRC the opportunity to make changes related to both manufacturer requirements and the audit process.
“The effectiveness of any standard is not just about its content but also the method of delivery of the audit process and Cert ID welcomes efforts to improve the audit process as well as requirements for manufacturers.”