What Is SQF Certification and How Does It Drive FSQA Processes?

Ruth Bitterman
Continuous Improvement Coach

The Safe Quality Food (SQF) is a Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) standard that helps to verify and demonstrate that food safety and quality controls have been effectively validated, implemented, and monitored. Process improvement is a methodology that assists with the collection and evaluation of feedback about processes to ensure continual improvement. 

Where these two overlap is where the magic happens. Efficient companies use their SQF certification to drive larger goals like continuously improving their FSQA processes across the board.

In our recent webinar, How SQF Certification Drives Process Improvement, Ruth Bitterman, Continuous Improvement PCQI, HACCP at SafetyChain, answers important questions like “What is SQF certification?” and “How can manufacturers use SQF certification to advance their FSQA processes?”

In this blog, we’ll review major FSQA process improvement objectives and map out how they’re conveyed in the current version, SQF Edition 9, which was released in October 2020 and became effective for all audits on May 24, 2021. The complete library of codes for SQF Edition 9 is available here

Roadmap: From SQF Certification to Continuous Process Improvement

Quality Control: Corrective and Preventative Action (CAPA) Plan and Critical Quality Control Points (CQP)

CAPA Plans empower organizations to react quickly to customer complaints and other issues as they arise. Within a CAPA Plan, the corrective action is used to correct problems as they are happening, while the preventative action is enacted to prevent the problem from happening in the future. CQPs are a significant part of the preventative action portion of a CAPA Plan. They include the specific steps to maintain quality. Generally, when an incident occurs, it’s because there was a breach of CQP requirements, the CQP requirements in place were insufficient, or no CQP requirements were in place at all.


“Corrective and preventative action methods shall include the identification of the root cause(s) and the resolution of non-compliance of critical quality limits and deviations from quality requirements Critical Quality Points (CQP).”


“Based on the results of the threat analysis (refer to, the food quality team shall identify the steps in the processes where control must be applied to eliminate a significant threat or reduce it to an acceptable level. These steps shall be identified as Critical Quality Points or CQPs.”

Source: SQF Quality Code Edition 9

Food Safety: Environmental Monitoring Program (EMP) and Critical Control Points (CCPs)

Within food safety manufacturing, EMPs largely exist to battle Listeria monocytogenes (listeria) and Salmonella spp. (salmonella), which annually cause many foodborne illnesses, hospitalizations, and even deaths. A successful EMP means continuous training for employees, regular pathogen testing, and routine cleaning.

In contrast to CQPs, which focus on maintaining quality, CCPs exist to protect the public health. CCPs are the steps and policies used to identify and control food safety hazards.

“A risk-based environmental monitoring program shall be in place for all food manufacturing processes and immediate surrounding areas, which impact manufacturing processes. The responsibility and methods for the environmental monitoring program shall be documented and implemented.”

“An environmental sampling and testing schedule shall be prepared. It shall at a minimum:
i. Detail the applicable pathogens or indicator organisms to test for in that industry;
ii. List the number of samples to be taken and the frequency of sampling;
iii. Outline the locations in which samples are to be taken and the rotation of locations as needed; and
iv. Describe the methods to handle elevated or undesirable results.”

“Environmental testing results shall be monitored, tracked, and trended, and preventative actions (refer to shall be implemented where unsatisfactory results or trends are observed.”

“The food safety team shall develop and document procedures to monitor CCPs to ensure they remain within the established limits (refer to Monitoring procedures shall identify the personnel assigned to conduct monitoring, the sampling and test methods, and the test frequency.”

Source: SQF Food Manufacturing Edition 9

Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP)

Typically, CCPs exist as part of a HACCP preventative management system. HACCP is used to identify the risks associated with specific foods or production processes — particularly controlling identified hazards that are likely to occur.

HACCP is foundational to many SQF codes as shown below.

Supplier Approval

Not only do suppliers need to be evaluated and approved, keeping approved backup suppliers on file is a significant update from SQF Edition 8. SQF Edition 9 is highly specific about the supplier approval program and details required to be maintained at all times.

An effective supplier approval program includes a robust checklist containing the steps needed for approval and an additional checklist that enables your company to make informed decisions about partnering with new suppliers, including contact information, key safety and quality measures, third-party audit histories, and the suppliers’ policies for returning products.


“Raw materials, ingredients, packaging materials, processing aids, and services, including co-manufactured products, that impact finished product quality shall be supplied by an approved supplier.”


“Material suppliers shall be selected and approved based on their ability to supply materials that meet quality specifications. The evaluation program shall require suppliers to:

i. Maintain controlled and current copies of specifications;
ii. Have processes that are capable of consistently supplying materials that meet specification and other defined quality metrics (e.g., delivery, service, etc.);
iii. Provide evidence that the supplied product meets agreed specifications and metrics;
iv. Have a complaint management system in place that includes corrective actions processes.”


“Materials supplied shall only be accepted by the site based on either a certificate of analysis for each lot received, or inspection of the lot at receipt, to ensure materials comply with specifications. All receipts shall be visually inspected for damage and product integrity.”


“The approved supplier program shall include an agreement with suppliers for the return or disposal of materials that fail to meet specifications or are damaged or contaminated.”


“Any supplier audits performed shall be conducted by individuals knowledgeable of applicable regulatory and food quality requirements and trained in auditing techniques.”

Source: SQF Food Manufacturing Edition 9

Data Capture

Data capture is built into the core of the SQF program. Using a digital platform to keep detailed records, track data, and identify trends helps keep you organized for when an audit happens and all the time leading up to your audit.

For example, CAPA management software can help track continuous improvements and investigate incidents with root cause analyses. Digitizing your company’s HACCP log automates time- and labor-intensive processes by recording data directly from the plant floor. Supplier management software should automatically monitor supplier tasks and communications, and keep contact information easily accessible.

Bitterman suggests that, while implementing a digital platform can be done at any time, one of the best times to implement a digital platform is just after an audit so you can start your audit year fresh with all your information stored in one centralized location.

“The SQFI assessment database is an audit management and data capture solution developed to contain costs and improve the efficiency and effectiveness of food safety audits. This innovative technology represents significant progress in how audit data is captured, managed and made available, and sets the SQF program apart from other similar GFSI programs.”

Source: SQF Food Manufacturing Edition 9

SQF Code Edition 9 Conversion Guide