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Point of View: Are third-party audits worth the money?

Scott Zimmerman is founder and CEO of Safe Quality Seafood Associates in Miami.
By Scott Zimmerman
March 01, 2014

Committing to an accredited food-safety management system is a paradigm shift from how most operators currently function. Today, more and more companies are committing resources to meeting these standards. We often hear buyers saying, “If you want to be a member of the big boys’ club, you will have be certified under a Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) benchmarked program.” This industrywide commitment has increased the price of products, as the supply chain expends capital on the necessary staffing and infrastructure to meet the strict requirements of these standards. 

GFSI standards would not have been accepted by the industry if they did not protect everyone in the supply chain. From the water to the grocery store, virtually all stages of production can be audited. Most businesses that undergo an audit are answering similar questions about the safety and sustainability of their operations. Since third-party certification audits will always have a place in the market, the question remains: Are they worth your money right now?

In general, the seafood industry’s perspective on certification is based largely on the experiences of those operations that have already committed themselves to the certification process. One message is clear: Audits are becoming more difficult. We do hear mixed messages about auditor competency, which have a serious impact on the outcome of an audit. The unpredictable cost of audits also makes it difficult for companies to choose a certification body. Like all commitments, there are pros and cons that need to be weighed before committing resources to certification. 

While there are a lot of benefits to certification, complying with these standards is easier said than done. Committing to a standard often requires a dramatic increase in paperwork, staffing and time commitments. These programs often come with price tags ranging between $10,000 to $60,000 depending on structural improvements, training, staffing and audit costs. On average it can take up to a year to write a program, implement it and start collecting the data for your first audit. If your timing and communication is off, you will be setting yourself up for a significant loss. Furthermore, a failed audit can bring down staff morale and potentially pit departments against one another. 

The pros of becoming certified are obvious. Certification increases your transparency, expands your footprint in new markets and increases your staff’s awareness and cohesiveness. Committing to a standard will also prepare operators for more stringent regulatory requirements. For example, most standards require you to prepare contingency plans for the worst possible scenarios. These living programs must be tested on an annual basis to keep operations running smoothly. It will be your duty to provide the auditor with the test results of your annual internal audit. These exercises will provide you with an opportunity to meet and discuss the outcome of the exercise and debate better ways to improve processes. 

If you’re thinking about making a commitment to the certification process, be sure to discuss the pros and cons of this monumental decision with your staff. It is vital for key staff to understand their responsibilities, along with any changes that need to be made, before you commit resources to certification.

Scott Zimmerman is founder and CEO of Safe Quality Seafood Associates in Miami. Zimmerman has worked in food safety, quality assurance, regulatory compliance, aquaculture and fisheries management since 2000.

February 2014 - SeaFood Business  

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