Safe Quality Foods Program
- Global adoption
- Choosing a registrar
- Route to registration
- Contributing editor
SQF, stands for Safe Quality Foods, and is a comprehensive food safety and quality management program for the entire food supply chain. It lays out the rules that a business must follow in order help ensure the safety and quality of their product. The business uses the applicable SQF Code to develop and implement a program that meets their needs and then contracts a third party audit company (a certification body) to verify through audits that the program as documented and implemented meets the requirements of the applicable SQF Code and will assure the production of a safe, quality product. Both the Codes have been internationally recognized by the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) as exceeding their requirements.
An SQF certification is both a management systems certification and a product certification; it is also site and product specific. The program consists of two Codes, the SQF 1000 Code for primary production (farming) and the SQF 2000 Code for food manufacturing and food sector services. Both are HACCP-based and address food safety controls, management system requirements and the control of quality. Unlike other programs, the SQF Codes can be applied seamlessly through the entire food supply chain - from farm to fork.
The SQF program was initially developed in Australia in the early 1990’s. It is currently owned and managed by the Food Marketing Institute in the United States of America. The day to day activities of the program are managed by the SQF Institute (A Division of the Food Marketing Institute).
The SQF Codes are unique among other GFSI-recognized food safety management systems in that they can be implemented and certified at three distinct levels:
- Level 1 Food Safety Fundamentals: An entry level for new and developing businesses covering only pre-requisite programs (requirements for assuring a product meets regulatory requirements and is wholesome and unadulterated) and basic food safety requirements.
- Level 2 Certified HACCP Based Food Safety Plans: Incorporates all of the Level 1 requirements and additionally requires the implementation of HACCP for food safety.
- Level 3 Comprehensive Food Safety and Quality Management System: Incorporates all of the Level 1 and Level 2 requirements and requires the implementation of a HACCP-based food quality plan to enhance control over the quality of the product.
It is suggested that those businesses who undertake high risk processes or manufacture high risk products begin with the Level 2 certification. Customers (e.g., retail, foodservice, etc.) may suggest the business start at a particular level, but ultimately it is the business who decides at which level they will be audited and certified to.
External verification through the certification process is required under the SQF program, a business cannot simply implement the requirements and “self-declare” they comply with the requirements. Certification lasts one year and the business must be re-certified on an annual basis. The details of the business are listed on the SQFI website once they achieve SQF certification.
The SQF Program requires a business designate an SQF Practitioner and a qualified back-up. The SQF Practitioner must have proven knowledge of HACCP (including proof of HACCP training), the applicable SQF Code and product and process knowledge. It is the SQF Practitioner who will serve as the champion of the program within the business and undertake specific communication, validation and verification activities to drive the implementation and maintenance of the SQF Code.
Is SQF 2000 relevant to your organization?
The SQF 2000 Code applies to any business that manufactures food products or provides services to the food industry. The SQF Institute classifies these businesses within twenty-eight food sector categories and these include such businesses as meat and poultry processing, dairy foods processing and the manufacture of food packaging materials among others.
SQFI provides guidance documents for a variety of food sectors in order to facilitate the implementation of SQF systems. There are currently four available (general processing, food packaging materials, egg processing and pack house operations) and they are available for download from the SQFI website.
Is SQF 1000 relevant to your organization?
The SQF 1000 Code for primary production applies to pre-farm gate businesses and include all farming activities including meat, poultry, game and crops as well as the provision of crop spray and field harvest services.
There are SQF-certified facilities all over the world. The SQF Institute provide the details of actively certified facilities on their website through a link to their database. As of the time of publication, there are thousands of facilities certified to the Codes globally. SQFI provides translations of the SQF Codes (Spanish, Mandarin) as well as translations of a number of their guidance documents on their website.
For a business, implementing and certifying their SQF program:
- Provides proof of due diligence.
- Provides increased brand protection, consumer confidence and loyalty.
- Allows them to address regulatory, food safety and quality requirements.
- Promotes confidence in food safety, quality and legality.
- Provides a platform for consistent improvement in process quality and safety.
- Allows businesses to refocus valuable time and resources historically lost to multiple and conflicting audit standards.
- Improves process management by helping to proactively identify and manage risk so as to avoid stock recoveries, market withdrawals and rework.
- Increases yield by reducing material waste.
- Streamlines risk and process management.
- Provides global recognition and access to new markets through the SQF website.
For a company purchasing products manufactured under an active SQF certification, the program:
- Helps protect your brand by focusing on hazard analysis, risk assessment and proactive prevention strategies.
- Increases consumer confidence and loyalty.
- Streamlines risk and process management.
- Provides proof of due diligence by requiring SQF certification from suppliers.
- Provides online access to a list of SQF suppliers, along with their certification status and audit results.
Two types of auditing are required to become registered to either the SQF 1000 or SQF 2000 Code: audits by internal staff trained for this process (internal audits) and auditing by an approved third-party certification body (external audit). The aim is a continual process of review and assessment, to verify that the system is working as it's supposed to, find out where it can improve and to correct or prevent problems identified.
The SQF Codes require that external SQF audit activities be undertaken by a registered SQF Auditor (or team) who holds the same food sector category(ies) that the site holds. This is done in order to assure the SQF auditor has knowledge of the type of business they will be undertaking the audit activity in. Such knowledge is important in assuring the auditor will understand the relevant processes, potential food safety and quality hazards and control measures appropriate to the operation.
The SQF Codes require that all internal auditors be trained in internal auditing techniques and where possible be independent of the function they are auditing.
Choosing a registrar
The certification process for the SQF Codes can only be undertaken by registrars (also known as certification bodies) that are accredited to ISO 17025 and hold a license with the SQF Institute. The accreditation and license requirements help to minimize the differences between the approved certification bodies, thus they typically differ on cost and customer service.
- Contact participating certification bodies.
- Receive quotations from several certification bodies.
- Do not select the cheapest as their auditing or service may be below standard.
- Ensure the certification body is recognised by your customers and they relevant sector experience for your industry sector.
Route to registration
There are various phases to registration:
1. Pre-assessment or gap analysis (Optional)
Before undertaking the implementation of an SQF Code, it is important to understand the programs you have in place, identify what the relevant Code requires and identify what needs to be developed as well as what existing programs can simply be changed in order to meet requirements. Most companies choose to do this on their own, with corporate guidance if that is available or by utilizing the services of an external service provider (SQF consultant or SQF auditor). Many organizations benefit from a pre-assessment conducted by an external service provider as a "dry run" of the formal assessment. This activity is typically an in-depth review of the system as documented and implemented. If you solicit a preassessment, be sure you discuss your needs and expectations with the external service provider in order to assure you get what you pay for.
2. Initial Certification Audit
The Initial SQF certification consists of the Desk Audit and the Facility Audit. These two activities can be undertaken during the same visit or separated by 1-2 months. You should check with your certification body to determine what their policies are.
During the Desk Audit, the SQF auditor will check to ensure your system as documented meets the requirements of the SQF Code as well as determining if an appropriately qualified SQF Practitioner has been designated and he/she has validated and verified the Food Safety Plans and Food Quality Plans (Level 3). The Desk Audit can be conducted as an off-site or on-site activity; again check with your certification body for their policies. Issues found during the Desk Audit will be documented as non-conformities. Depending on the number and type of non-conformities documented, the audit will move to the next phase – the Facility Audit – or not move forward until and critical and major non-conformities identified during the Desk Audit are properly corrected and corrective action verified by the SQF auditor.
During the Facility Audit, the SQF auditor will determine whether your system as implemented meets the requirements of the SQF Code. This typically requires for the auditor to review a limited amount of documentation, undertake review of relevant records, interview staff and review the site itself inside and outside for compliance. At the end of the Facility Audit you will be provided with a draft audit report and be informed by the auditor whether or not your facility will be recommended for certification.
The certification activity is conducted by the certification body.
4. Certificate Issue
Your certificate of registration will arrive soon after your certification has been confirmed.
Depending on the certification audit result, your site may need to be visited in 6 months to ensure that your system continues to meet the requirements of the SQF Code. The need for a surveillance audit is defined in the SQF Code.
After certification, an SQF auditor will visit your organization annually to ensure that your system continues to meet the requirements of the SQF Code.
Businesses who fail to meet the requirements of the Code upon re-certification will have their certificate of registration suspended or withdrawn. The requirements for this are specified in the SQF Code.
The costs for certification depend on a number of factors. There are costs to both implement and to maintain your certification. In terms of costs to implement, if you choose a full do-it-yourself approach, the only real costs will be the time for resources dedicated to understanding the Code, developing and documenting your program, validating and verifying your programs and training your staff. Understanding the Code requirements can be undertaken as a self-study activity by downloading all of the necessary documentation from the SQF website, by completing the SQFI’s online systems training courses, or by seeking the services of an officially licensed SQF training center who utilize qualified and registered SQF Trainers. If you have little experience with the relevant SQF code, or have limited internal resources, you might choose to get some outside professional help from a registered SQF consultant. The SQFI provides access to a searchable database through their website where you may find registered SQF Consultants that have been approved to work in your particular industry sector in your particular part of the world.
Costs of certification/registration are dependent on many factors including the time required to undertake the audit activity. The time required to undertake the audit activity depends on the size and complexity of your site’s operation and can be affected by multiple factors including the scope of the audit, the size of the facility, the design of the flow of product and personnel, the complexity of the process (including number of product lines, the overall process, extent of mechanization and labor intensiveness), the risk level of the product, the design of the site’s SQF system documentation, the languages spoken by staff, the SQF auditor’s skill and the cooperation of your staff during the audit activity.
SQFI provides additional guidance on the typical expected duration of an SQF audit as follows:
Most registrars charge a certain rate per day to be on-site at your facility as well as the costs of travel incurred by the SQF Auditor. This day rate will vary depending on your country, the typical day rate in the United States can vary between $800 and $2,000 per auditor day depending on the registrar. Other fees include application fees, fees for additional audits if needed and annual re-certification fees.
To maintain your certification, the Registrar must return annually at a minimum to audit and re-certify your system. These costs will be less than the initial certification audit, since the auditor does not need to undertake a complete Desk Audit and will spend time auditing changes to the system and the facility’s compliance to the SQF code (Facility Audit). The auditor will undertake a limited Desk Audit in the event of changes to your system (e.g., you move from Level 2 to Level 3) and a complete Desk Audit in the event of the release of a new edition of the SQF Code (e.g., release of edition 7 anticipated in late 2011).
Dr. Tatiana Lorca
Dr. Lorca is the Manager of Food Safety Education and Training within the Food & Beverage Division of Ecolab, Inc. where she is in charge of developing audit, training, consulting services and scientific support for the food industry from farm to fork.
Prior to her appointment with Ecolab, she held positions at EcoSure (A Division of Ecolab), BSI Management Systems Americas, Inc. and the SQF Institute (A Division of FMI) coordinating and delivering food safety training and certification programs for the Americas. Dr. Lorca has research and instruction experience in food science and technology, covering microbiology, chemistry, sensory evaluation and HHP processing in the seafood and meat processing industries. She is a member of the SQF Institute Technical Advisory Council, a member of the International Association for Food Protection (IAFP), the Consumer Goods Forum Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) Technical Committee and a member of the advisory council of the food science department at Virginia Tech.
Dr. Lorca holds a masters and doctoral degree in Food Science and Technology from Virginia Tech. She is a registered SQF Consultant and Trainer, an Approved Training Provider (ATP) for the BRC Food program, BRC Food consultant, HACCP and FSSC 22000 trainer. Details about the training courses and consulting services available through Ecolab’s Food Safety Institute can be found at this link.
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