A Guide to GFSI Compliance and Certification

Tiffany M. Donica
Continuous Improvement Coach

A single foodborne illness outbreak can damage a company's reputation and cost millions of dollars. That's why more and more food manufacturers are prioritizing GFSI certification.This internationally recognized certification is the gold standard for food safety, and it's essential for food manufacturers who want to ensure the safety of their products. In this blog, we'll discuss what GFSI certification is, why it's important, and how to achieve it. We'll also provide some tips for food manufacturers who are just starting their GFSI journey.

What Is GFSI?

The Global Food Safety Initiative, or GFSI, represents the work of a private, collaborative organization overseen by the Consumer Goods Forum. Its purpose is to maintain a scheme for benchmarking food safety standards for manufacturers and farmers. While pursuing GFSI certification is a voluntary practice, many food and beverage companies seek the accreditation as a demonstration of their commitment to proactive risk mitigation. GFSI schemes are a universally-recognized standard by which food companies are judged for food safety during third-party inspections.

While agencies such as the FDA and USDA help to regulate practices and enforce food safety, compliance with these laws is mandatory. To further demonstrate their commitment to providing top-notch products and adhering to rigorous standards, food and beverage companies can also voluntarily pursue GFSI certification.

As we dive deeper into GFSI certification and compliance, we’ll review key points on GFSI, including a brief history of its establishment, current GFSI-recognized schemes, benefits of becoming certified, and the process of pursuing certification.

In This Article

  • A Brief History & Background of GFSI

  • What Does GFSI Do?

  • What Is GFSI Certification?

  • Pursuing Certification to a GFSI-Recognized Standard

  • How to Select a GFSI Standard

  • Benefits of Becoming GFSI Certified

  • How to Become GFSI Certified

  • Achieving Ongoing GFSI Compliance

  • Resources for Learning About GFSI-Certified Remote Audits

A Brief History & Background of GFSI

GFSI was launched in 2000 under Belgian Law as a result of high-profile food recalls. Consumer confidence was dropping, and the food industry recognized a need to repair its image. The development of GFSI was also brought on by audit fatigue: throughout the food industry, retailers would perform inspections or audits themselves or by hiring a third party. Because there was no internationally-recognized benchmarking system for food safety standards, the redundant inspections became costly and time-intensive for both food manufacturers and their customers.

Prior to the development of GFSI standards, business leaders from globally-recognized food companies conferred at The Consumer Goods Forum and agreed upon the collective pursuit of an improved, safer supply chain. To synchronize food safety standards and reduce unnecessary audit repetition, the Global Food Safety Initiative was created as a collaborative platform for food safety experts, government officials, academia, and international organizations.

GFSI compiled its first draft of benchmarking requirements, which was published in 2001. It wasn’t until 2003 that the first four recognized schemes (EFSIS, BRC, IFS, and Dutch HACCP) became accepted. Still, it took four years for GFSI to gain widespread recognition: in 2007, the “GFSI Breakthrough” occurred, in which seven major retailers announced their acceptance of GFSI benchmarked certification programs. The participating brands included Tesco, Wal-Mart, Royal Ahold, Delhaize, Metro, Carrefour, and Migros. Three years later, the Global Food Safety Conference was held for the first time, taking place in the U.S. capital of Washington, D.C. Since then, the tremendous impact of GFSI has continued to spread across the food industry. In 2017, the Global Food Safety Conference had record-breaking attendance, with 1,200 delegates from more than 50 nations attending the 16th annual event.

What Does GFSI Do?

The overarching goal of the GFSI is to leave flexibility in the marketplace while simultaneously achieving convergence among food safety management practices. Its purpose is also to create competencies in food safety to maintain consistent, effective global food systems.

At the center of its benchmarking model is the GFSI’s Guidance Document, which was developed with the input of multiple stakeholders and drafted by food experts from across the globe. The document outlines the ways in which food safety schemes become GFSI-recognized and provides direction for these schemes. The Guidance Document is updated regularly to promote relevant and robust food safety management requirements.

What Is GFSI Certification?

In order to become officially recognized by GFSI, a food safety certification program (often referred to as a recognized “scheme”) must comply with internationally-recognized food safety requirements. GFSI itself is not a certification program, nor does it perform certification or accreditation activities. Thus, companies that wish to become GFSI-certified must pursue certification to a GFSI recognized standard based on the option that best aligns with their activities.

Pursuing Certification to a GFSI-Recognized Standard

To help you come to an informed decision on the right option for your company, the following sections provide a brief overview of each GFSI-recognized scheme and how they serve different facets of the food industry.

9 GFSI Standards Commonly Used by U.S. and Canadian F&B Manufacturers

1. PrimusGFS

Formed in January of 2010, PrimusGFS is a GFSI benchmarked standard best known for its recognition by buyers in the Western Hemisphere. The audit scheme is endorsed by more than 2,000 growers and provides total produce supply chain coverage. It is owned by Azzule Systems and supports total produce supply chain coverage. It is available for certification in 15 countries, including the U.S. and Mexico.

2. IFS

International Featured Standards (IFS) is used to audit food manufacturers regarding safety and quality of processes. IFS is more common in Europe than in the U.S., but some North American countries find it beneficial to become certified in the scheme. It has recently added a section on food fraud to more closely align with the outcomes of FSMA. Requirements are organized into six categories, including: senior management responsibility; quality and food safety management system; resource management; planning and production process; measurements, analysis, and improvements; and food defense. There are currently three available IFS schemes for companies to choose from, including IFS PACsecure for the packaging industry; IFS Food Standard, focused on food safety and quality of processes and products; and, IFS Logistics for auditing companies responsible for the storage, distribution, transportation, loading, and unloading of food products.

3. Global Aquaculture Alliance Seafood

The Global Aquaculture Alliance Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP) seafood processing plant standards were benchmarked against GFSI requirements in May of 2013. According to their website, their certifications have made them the leading standards-setting organization for aquaculture seafood.

4. GlobalG.A.P.

Global Good Agricultural Practice (GAP) is a global standard promoting safe, sustainable agriculture. Certification is available for three scopes of production: crops, livestock, and aquaculture. It is the most widely implemented farm certification across the world, and many European customers require certification in this scheme.

5. Global Red Meat Standard

As its name suggests, the Global Red Meat Standard (GRMS) is a scheme developed for promoting safety in the meat industry. It applies to all aspects of the supply chain, from transport to slaughter and handling of meat products.

6. FSSC 22000

More than 18,000 companies in over 140 nations have received certification in FSSC 22000, which is based on existing ISO standards. There are more than 1,500 auditors across the globe and 110 licensed certification bodies in place.

7. CanadaGAP

CanadaGAP is a food safety standard that was developed in Canada to promote the safe handling of fruits and vegetables. There are two manuals for industry use: one for greenhouse operations, and as separate one for other fruit and vegetable operations.

8. SQF

To be certified through the Safe Quality Food (SQF) Institute, food companies must go through a three-step process to ultimately demonstrate comprehensive implementation of food safety and quality management systems. According to their website, SQF is the only scheme that integrates a quality component in addition to safety.

SQF Code Edition 9 Conversion Guide

9. BRC

BRC Global Standards is the largest global GFSI scheme. It is divided into seven sections: senior management commitment and continual improvement, HACCP, food safety and quality management system, site standards, product control, process control, and personnel. There are four available BRC schemes to choose from, including the BRC Global Standard for Food Safety and the BRC-Institute of Packaging (IoP) Global Standard for the quality and safety of packaging and packaging materials. The BRC Global Standard for Agents and Brokers Issue and BRC Global Standard for Storage and Distribution certifications are also available.

BRC Audits and Certification: The Ultimate Guide to BRC Issue 9

How to Select a GFSI Standard

With several recognized certification schemes to choose from, you’ll want to make sure you select the best fit for your company. While the schemes have the same overarching content, specific requirements vary from one to the next. The management of the program and audits may also be unique.

To determine which is best for your needs, review each of the programs to see which one best supports your specific industry segment. Each scheme’s website contains resources to help food and beverage companies learn more about certification and compliance. For instance, SQF is well-suited for food processing and manufacturing, distribution, and packaging. You can also research the scheme further to find out which documents will apply specifically to your business. For example, FSSC 22000 has specific documents for food packagers versus processors.

Benefits of Becoming GFSI Certified

Many leading companies seek GFSI-recognized programs in their supply chain, including Amazon, The Coca-Cola Company, and Target, among others. In fact, the leading reasons many food and beverage companies seek certification are to continue doing business with an existing customer or to begin doing business with a new customer, according to a 2017 study published by the Journal of Food Protection®. Ultimately, to contend with leading brands, today’s food and beverage companies can leverage GFSI certification to demonstrate their commitment to quality and safety.

Beyond securing a competitive position in the market, here are a few additional benefits of becoming GFSI certified.

Better Performance

Certification can drive internal business results as well. The study above revealed that nearly 90% of respondents felt becoming certified aided in addressing food safety concerns, and 74% would become certified again even if their customers did not require it. The majority of companies also witnessed an improvement in Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) in the year directly after becoming GFSI certified.

Safer Food

GFSI standards also support safer products. Certification to a GFSI-recognized standard offers shared risk management tools, so food safety management is optimized across all levels of the supply chain. When your company becomes certified, your food safety management system will continuously improve with evolving standards. You’ll therefore be positioned to keep up with the latest requirements in safety at any given time.

Resource Optimization

While becoming GFSI certified requires an initial investment of time and labor, the benefits of certification have a profound impact. With fewer redundancies in audits, for instance, you can focus your company’s time and efforts on more strategic initiatives. Additionally, complying with GFSI standards helps you achieve reduced failure, which can also positively impact your bottom line.

How to Become GFSI Certified

Again, GFSI itself does not perform certification or accreditation activities. Thus, you’ll first need to determine which scheme(s) are best for your organization based on the types of activities of your operation. Next, contact the program owner that covers your scope to determine which specific certification program fits your activities. You can then request a list of approved certification bodies that perform audits against their program or contact the certification body directly to request an audit.

Before doing so, however, you should first obtain a copy of the certification program you’ve collected. Read through the requirements carefully to pinpoint any gaps between your current food safety operations and where they should be for audit success. Meet with your management teams and other key stakeholders to discuss costs and action steps needed for preparation, audit, and ongoing compliance. You may consider having a pre-audit performed prior to the official inspection or attending a training course to further boost preparation.

Achieving Ongoing GFSI Compliance

Of course, the process of becoming certified is only the first step in developing a robust GFSI program. Following certification, you must also ensure ongoing compliance. This should include continuous audit preparedness, vendor management, scheduling and monitoring required activities, and performance trending for ongoing improvement. While each of these activities is essential for compliance, performing them regularly can become time-consuming and resource-intensive.

To reduce the administrative burden, more and more companies are deploying technology to manage their GFSI certification requirements. Automated task scheduling and workflows can save your team a significant amount of time, while also verifying all tasks are completed. Additionally, online portals can simplify data retrieval for remote teams and multiple locations. You can also use equipment data extraction to ensure efficiency and accuracy. Plus, with real-time data analysis and program specifications, you can receive instant non-conformance alerts to achieve timely, documented CAPAs.

Food safety software also offers automated vendor program management, helping to ensure suppliers follow your GFSI, FSMA, and internal supplier program requirements. This allows you to take a preventive, instead of reactive, approach to non-conformances throughout the supply chain. Finally, software gives you the power to continuously drive performance with data-driven decision making, as well as ongoing audit readiness via electronic data capture and storage.

Resources for Learning About GFSI-Certified Remote Audits

On June 11, 2020, GFSI posted a letter from its leadership with news in support of using Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) during audits. At the same time, it updated its Benchmarking Requirements, allowing each Certification Program Owner (e.g. FSSC, SQF, BRCGS, etc.) to develop its own remote auditing procedures as long as IAF MD4 continued to be a normative reference (clause 4.6.1). This move to allow food and beverage companies that are certified against GFSI standards to be able to conduct a significant portion of their audits remotely had been under consideration for some time and was accelerated by travel restrictions that arose out of the COVID-19 pandemic. There are several advantages to pursuing a GFSI remote audit, though each facility should base the decision on its own unique factors. For instance, in some schemes, the audit for initial certification must be conducted on site. For a full explanation of GFSI's stance on the use of ICT in remote audits as of June 2020, read GFSI Allows Partial Remote Audits, or to learn more, download our PDF or watch our video

The Road Forward

Clearly, becoming GFSI certified is a considerable undertaking for food and beverage companies. No matter which benchmarked scheme your company becomes certified in, your facility will undergo many changes to promote ongoing GFSI compliance. Nonetheless, with the potential to improve performance, promote safer food, and attract larger customers, the payoff is well worth the effort. And, as there are several schemes to consider, pursuing certification to a GFSI-recognized standard is possible for all types of food and beverage companies, including processors, packaging facilities, and everything in between.

Of course, ensuring your operations are consistently up to GFSI standards is no easy feat. Fortunately, technology can help you streamline compliance, automating key tasks such as audit prep. Find out more about how technology and GFSI certification go hand-in-hand with our free eBook, 4 Key Ways Technology Helps Ensure GFSI Compliance.


About SafetyChain Software

SafetyChain is a digital plant management platform for process manufacturers trusted by more than 2,000 facilities to improve plant-wide performance. It unifies production and quality teams with data and insights, tools, and delivers real-time operational visibility and control by eliminating paper and point solutions.