A new version of the British Retail Consortium Global Standard – Food, Issue 4 comes into effect on 1 July 2005. The new standard includes significant changes, both in the requirements of the standard and in how companies are assessed against it. Chris Lyddon reports.

The level of interest in the food industry was enough to get over 500 delegates to a conference on the subject of the new standard, put on by leading UK certification body EFSIS recently, despite snow-covered roads.

The BRC standard had been a big success in cutting down on duplication of inspection of food plants by retailers, said EFSIS managing director Mark Proctor. EFSIS had been involved from the inception of the BRC standard. “At the time most of the retailers were doing their own thing, following each other round doing the same thing or, worse, contradicting each other,” he said.

EFSIS was one of the stakeholder groups consulted as the new version of the standard was drawn up, said EFSIS certification manager Adam Chappell. “EFSIS has actively participated in the revision of the standard,” he said. “The aim was to make the standard as clear as possible.” It wasn’t just to make it easy to understand for the food processor. “One of the functions of this type of standard is to help provide users with a due diligence defence,” he added.

No more foundation and higher levels

Chappell has identified a long list of changes, including new rules affecting allergen and high risk controls and traceability systems. One of the most important changes is on the final certificate. “The new standard presents its requirements at one level,” he said. There would be no more foundation- and higher-level versions of certification. “As the newer versions (of the BRC standard) have come out there have been fewer requirements in the higher-level column,” he said. “So it’s not a surprise that we have moved to one standard.” There had been very few foundation-level certificates issued, most of them going to new, previously uncertified sites.

One new feature is the classification of certain requirements as “fundamental”. “I tend to think of them as the cornerstones of your systems of control,” said Chappell. “The retailers like the idea that they really are fundamental requirements.” But even so, the requirements which have come up as fundamental were largely present in some form in the existing standard. The ten fundamental requirements include the HACCP system, the Quality Management System, internal audit, traceability, housekeeping and hygiene and control of operations. Quoting the standard, Chappell said they all “relate to systems which shall be well established, continuously maintained and monitored by the company”.

EFSIS food director Carole Payne outlined the protocol that governs the process of inspection and certification. She pointed out that all certificates would be valid up until their expiry. “If you have your evaluation on 30 June you have a whole year,” she said.

She welcomed the decision to extend the duration of the actual inspection from the current one day to 1.5 days. “Most of you will know that there’s an awful lot to cover,” she said. “There are only so many hours in the day.” The change had also been triggered by the need for more time to be spent on the factory floor, as well as by retailer concern that there was a lack of detail in current inspections.

There were no changes to the definitions of non-conformances, with them still divided into critical, major and minor. Critical non-conformances are failures to comply with a food safety or legal issue. The major ones are substantial failures to meet a statement of intent or a clause of the standard. A minor non-conformance is defined as one where absolute compliance has not been met, but the conformity of the product is not in doubt. Critical or major non-conformances against fundamental clauses would result in certification being suspended or withdrawn.

New grading system

A new grading system will make it clear how a plant has performed on the day. Grades from A to D would rank the supplier and dictate how soon the next evaluation takes place. If a plant gets A, which means no major non-conformances, or ten or fewer minor ones, there is a year to the next evaluation. The same goes for grade B, which is awarded where there are two or fewer major non-conformances, or between 11 and 20 minor ones. C grades are awarded on the basis of one critical non-conformance, or three or more major ones, or 31 or more minor ones, and means re-evaluation after six months, giving plants the advantage of a short period in which to redeem themselves. Grade D, which is the grade where there is a non-conformance against a fundamental requirement, means that no certificate is issued.

Chris Anstey, product integrity manager of Tesco, was pleased with the grading system. “With this system the certificate will actually have the rating on it. Good sites will do well,” he said.

He complained that some processing sites seemed to use the inspection as a way of finding out what they needed to change, rather than making sure they conformed to the standard before the inspector arrived. “When you see the lists of non-compliances sometimes you think that the site was not ready,” he said. Even if they passed, he advised food companies against getting too comfortable. “It doesn’t mean you can relax and you can be complacent because you’ve got a certificate,” he said.

Certification bodies criticised

One sticking point for Anstey was the standard of some certification bodies. “As I was starting this job I found that the first issue that came to mind was certification body performance,” he said. “I wasn’t that happy and I remain not that happy that there’s a consistent process across all the bodies – excluding EFSIS of course.”

The problem was particularly difficult where dealing with suppliers from a long distance away. “It’s not unusual for suppliers around the world to pop up and say ‘I’ve got a certificate’, but you’ve never heard of the certification body and you’ve never heard of the factory,” he said.

He stressed that the retailers had worked together very closely to design the new standard. “The task is to make things simpler for you and ultimately cheaper for you,” he said. “In Europe the number of retailer audits has dropped considerably.”

The idea was being adopted around the world “Chinese retailers are putting a standard up for benchmarking,” he said. The prospects were immense. “There are 600,000 food factories in China. Their main concern is their own market.”

A fantastic opportunity

Anstey was sure the changes would be a big success. “I think it’s a fantastic opportunity for all stakeholders,” he said. “We the UK retailers are really looking forward to the management information that’s coming our way. It’s a remarkable piece of work.” And he hailed the cooperation between stakeholders that had led to the new standard. “It’s something that never ever could have been produced by a single retailer or a single certification body.”