Food safety has never been higher up the agenda of public and official concern, not only because of the danger and misery incidences such as contaminations can cause, but also because of their ability to decimate market confidence in the blink of an eye. The work of the Geneva-based International Organization for Standardization (ISO) is therefore all the more important in today’s food market. Keith Nuthall takes a look at the organisation’s work in developing and enforcing food safety guidelines.

It may be reassuring that during an era where food companies must increasingly grapple with often complex global and regional cross-border trade, health, packaging and marketing regulations, there is one international organisation that actually designs rules with their practical use in mind. This is the Geneva-based International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and – mirroring general concern about ensuring globally traded food is safe and high quality – has spent much time, effort and expertise in recent years developing management and technical standards and guidelines for the sector.

The ISO does not make laws: unlike the European Union or the World Trade Organisation, it employs industry experts to agree the best way of making, trading or promoting something, and then codifies its advice in management models, supposedly useful and effective, and always voluntary.

Food is a priority for the ISO, and it has a specialist technical committee on food products (TC34), which, with its specialist sub-committees, has been responsible for creating 704 standards for the food sector.

These standards range widely. Perhaps the most important is the recent general standard ISO 22000:2005, on ‘food management systems – requirements for any organisation in the food chain’, which advises feed and primary producers, food manufacturers, transport and storage operators, and subcontractors to retail and food service outlets, as well as manufacturers of equipment, packaging material, cleaning agents, additives and ingredients.

There are also some highly specific standards. For instance ISO 2291:1980 on ‘cocoa beans – determination of moisture content (routine method)’ – the last four numbers signal the year a standard was approved. There are more technical standards affecting many sub-sectors, such as ISO 5498:1981 on the ‘determination of crude fibre content – general method’; and a host of standards developed by sectoral committees, for fruit and vegetables, cereals, dairy products, meat, spices and condiments, oils and fats, and others. A complete list of ISO standards is available here.

However, it is the recent ISO series of standards on food management systems that has caused the most current interest in the food sector, as they mirror the introduction of farm-to-fork legislation around the world. Bramfood Manufacturers and Distributors, a Canadian manufacturer of seafood and vegetable products based in Brampton, Ontario, was certified to general food safety standard ISO 22000:2005 last September, the first north American business to achieve this.

Bramfood’s CEO Muru Rajah claimed by following the standard, his business is poised to secure more international sales. Not only is it good PR to be certified following respected international standards, as ISO 22000:2005 becomes more ubiquitous business partners are likely to follow management and operational systems meshing with those of Bramfood, the company says.

“ISO 22000:2005 gives the food industry a useful trade tool for global business by cutting down trade barriers, expanding market access and creating a level playing field for all competitors,” Rajah explains. “It will bring businesses throughout the food supply chain into contact and make it easy for them to communicate. It can also be a great marketing machine for early adopters of this standard.”

The ISO is confident this uptake will be international, and recently issued a report on Tunisia, where a national industrial modernisation plan has been designed to gain ISO 22000:2005 certification for the country’s 105 food industry companies by this December. The government is providing assessments, training, money, assistance regarding documentation (notably to aid traceability of products), creating “international recognition of their food safety and hygiene management […] which should help them in export markets”.

All of this sounds great, but as ever with paper standards and rules, they are only as good as their implementation, and the ISO is currently working on additional guidelines specifying the quality of organisations able to certify that food companies are complying.

The result is ISO/TS 22003:2007, which another report claims will “bring international consistency to food safety management system certification”, a key issue if the ISO’s standards are to stay well regarded and popular worldwide. This new standard will state the qualifications that must be commanded by certification body auditors, the duration of audits, and stipulates the need for them to be carried out in two phases, allowing for more reflection.

According to an ISO spokesperson, agreeing the details was tricky. “Where certification is required by customers, or by regulators, or is judged desirable as a marketing differentiator, ISO/TS 22003:2007 will help to build confidence in such certification throughout the food supply chain.”

Useful links:

ISO Food Safety Management Systems

ISO 22000 standard for safe food supply chains