Product: Food Safety and Local Food
Food safety often comes up in conversations about local food, and for many, proving that food is safe is a pre-requisite to doing business with the Broader Public Sector (BPS).
To verify that food is coming from safe sources, the food industry, over the past decade, has moved to require suppliers to use documented process control systems that maximize safety. For the most part, they are looking for systems that are based on Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Points, better known as HACCP.
HACCP is a set of principles that can be used to ensure food is handled in a way that minimizes the chances of contamination. The seven principles are:
- Conduct a hazard analysis to identify food safety hazards
- Identify critical control points where an action can be taken to reduce a hazard
- Establish critical limits for each control point
- Establish control point monitoring
- Establish corrective actions to bring the process back on track if a deviation from critical limits has occurred
- Establish procedures for ensuring the HACCP system is working as intended
- Establish record keeping procedures
These principles are used to create HACCP systems, or food safety plans. Internationally and within Canada, there are several standards that can be used to certify that an operation is using HACCP based food safety practices. Some standards only apply to certain segments of the food supply chain, while others provide programs to cover multiple segments. CanadaGAP, for example, is a food safety certification for fresh produce, while the Safe Quality Food (SQF) program can be applied to segments ranging from farming to processing to packaging. When someone says they are HACCP certified, they actually mean they are certified for one of these food safety standards.
A food company can also have a process control system that is based on HACCP principles, but is not certified. This is the approach taken by many smaller companies because it is not feasible or practical to become certified. Stemmler Meats, for example, is a provincial meat processor that sells their products in retail stores and to BPS institutions. Their food safety plan is designed around the seven HACCP principles, but they have not gone through the process to acquire certification.
When Kevin Stemmler, co-owner of Stemmler Meats, tried to list his products with local independent Sobeys stores, the first question he was asked was “are you HACCP certified?” Saying “no” was nearly the end of the conversation, but Kevin asked them to tour his facility and see his process control systems for themselves. The result? The Sobeys representatives told Kevin he could do business with them anytime, and his product is now available in several local stores.
This situation is common when discussing local food in the BPS. The question of “are you HACCP certified” comes up almost every time a new local food is introduced to purchasers in the BPS. The issue is that being HACCP certified is perceived to be the only way to verify that food is being produced in a safe manner. But as the Stemmler Meats example demonstrates, certification is not the only way to produce food safely. This misperception is putting local food vendors at a disadvantage. The real question that should be asked is “do you have a HACCP based food safety system?”.
In practice, many foodservice and distribution companies will work with vendors that have HACCP based food safety systems. In place of certification, they will require that the vendor undergo and pass a third party food safety audit. In some cases, the company may have a list of pre-approved auditors, or they will have their own on staff. These audits verify that satisfactory food safety plans are in place.
Misconceptions and concerns about food safety and HACCP make it difficult to get local food to market.
Progress Being Made
- A local meat processor wanted to enter the BPS market. In place of having a HACCP based certification, the company had a third party audit of their food safety plan. Their plan and the results of the audit were presented to Procurement Managers in the BPS to assure them that satisfactory food safety measures were in place.
- In order to do business with a foodservice company, a local food distributor started the process of becoming GAP certified. The foodservice company was satisfied with the food safety processes that were already in place, and that the distributor was in the process of seeking certification.
- A foodservice company created local food recipes for healthcare facilities that included detailed food safety plans for the preparation and serving of meals. The plans were based on HACCP principles, and helped ensure that hospitals were both purchasing and serving safe foods.
- Do not let a lack of certification be an end to the conversation. Vendors need to effectively demonstrate and communicate their food safety plans.
- In some cases, distributors or foodservice companies may ask vendors to undergo a third party audit and sign a hold harmless agreement in the absence of HACCP certification.
- As a purchaser in the BPS, encourage your distributors to work with new suppliers, and to look at the food safety systems they have in place.
- Some HACCP certification companies are working to automate the documentation process so it's easier to monitor your food safety systems and cheaper to get certified.
Keep your eyes open for our next Local Food Solution Paper, Meat Regulations and Local Food. Follow @ontariofresh on Twitter to join the conversation.
This series is written with contributions from: Kathy Macpherson, Franco Naccarato, and Brendan Wylie-Toal.