Contract manufacturers play one of the most critical roles in the food and beverage supply chain. Often, well-known food and beverage companies will rely on contract facilities to manufacture their products, which then go on to store shelves. Thus, by contracting, these purveyors entrust their brand and reputation to suppliers with the expectation that they will deliver a safe and high-quality product — one they can reliably put their name on.
With well-established brands on the line, food and beverage companies must be selective when choosing a contract manufacturer. One way of qualifying potential suppliers is seeing if they hold certifications from a third-party organization with food safety guidelines and quality standards, such as the Safe Quality Food Institute (SQFI). In fact, SQF certification through SQFI is widely recognized by retailers, brand owners and food service providers around the world, with one in four companies citing it as a requirement for suppliers.
This makes SQF one of the most important certifications that a contract manufacturer can have. Those with SQF certification are better poised to win contracts, as they have demonstrated an ability to uphold quality and control food safety risks. Achieving certification provides a distinct competitive advantage, leading to more business.
In the following, we will delve deeper into SQF certification, its various levels and how to obtain the highest level of certification through Statistical Process Control (SPC).
SQF certification 101
As a food safety management program, SQF certification was designed to bring increased rigor and integrity to the food and beverage industry, protecting consumers and food brands in the process. SQF is one of only 11 programs recognized by the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI), which has set benchmarked standards for guaranteeing the safety and quality of the food supply chain — whether a product is coming from a small, family-owned business or a global brand.
There are three primary levels of SQF certification, each one being progressively more robust:
Level 1: SQF Fundamentals Program
Intended for manufacturers of low-risk food products, the SQF Fundamentals Program is ideal for sites that are just establishing a food safety management program. While this level does not satisfy GFSI standards, it creates a solid foundation for doing so.
Level 2: SQF Food Safety Program
This second tier Food Safety Program introduces an approach based on the preventive food safety system, Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP). HACCP ensures that scientific analysis is done for all microbiological, physical and chemical hazards throughout the supply chain. Level 2 certification does meet GFSI benchmarked standards for food safety.
Level 3: SQF Food Safety and Quality Program
The third and highest level of SQF certification is for sites that meet Level 2 standards and want to go above and beyond with a program that monitors and controls threats to food quality. To attain this level of certification, an organization must see that every single aspect of their manufacturing operations meets GFSI’s benchmarked standards.
Obtaining Level 3 certification involves these seven steps:
1. Education on SQF code
2. Registration with the SQF Assessment Database
3. Identifying an on-site SQF practitioner
4. Selecting the certification program
5. Finding a licensed certification body
6. Doing a pre-assessment
7. Undergoing the official audit.
This third level is more rigorous, yet many of the world’s largest food and beverage brands require their suppliers have this highest level of distinction. To obtain Level 3 certification, a site needs to have a way to manage large manufacturing datasets and present them during an audit—ideally through software. As such, an SQF Food Safety and Quality Program requires an SPC solution for data-driven quality control.
The role of SPC in SQF certification
SPC is an industry-standard methodology for measuring and controlling quality during the manufacturing process. Quality data in the form of product or process measurements are obtained in real time. These data are compared with pre-determined control limits for process variation. Data that fall within the control limits indicate that everything is operating as expected. The aim of SPC is to produce more consistent products, as close to target specifications as possible.
If quality data fall outside of the control limits, SPC software can proactively alert plant-floor operators — so a supplier can preemptively catch food quality and safety issues before they reach consumers and trigger a potentially costly recall. For SQF certification, this establishes a strong program with safeguards for food quality and safety. Moreover, with all historical data stored and easily accessible within the system, a supplier can get credible insights about their products and processes to validate compliance with SQF requirements and GFSI standards, streamlining audits and certification.
Beyond monitoring and audit purposes, an SPC solution can take quality data one step further and elevate them to their “second life,” when analysis can reveal meaningful opportunities for process improvement. This includes ways to reduce waste, cut production costs, streamline production and optimize quality — all of which contribute to a better bottom line. In effect, a supplier can go beyond just ensuring that their products are “in spec,” and cultivate a culture of continuous improvement — and that benefits everyone in the supply chain.
SQF certification is a win-win for all
As mentioned, SQF certification enables contract manufacturers to prove their ability to uphold recognized standards for food quality and safety. They can thus drive increased demand for their services and gain more business from purveyors. Through SPC, these suppliers can uncover additional profits by way of process improvements, e.g., lower costs, reduced waste, increased productivity and more.
In one instance, actionable data through SPC enabled a snack supplier to significantly reduce variations in its product quality, resulting in $1 million in waste savings. With improved product consistency, the supplier is now able to win more contracts with large, household brands. Such purveyors benefit by working with suppliers that they know they can trust, protecting their overall brand image and ensuring customer loyalty. Consumers benefit because they can buy with confidence and peace of mind, knowing that they are enjoying a safe and high-quality product. At the end of the day, perhaps that is what matters most.
Steve Wise is the vice president of statistical methods for InfinityQS. He joined the team in 1996 and focuses on ensuring proper use of statistical techniques within the software offerings and application in the customer base. He helps companies from all industry segments implement real-time Statistical Process Control (SPC) and advanced statistical tools. He is also responsible for software calculation validation and helps with the technical aspects of demonstrating the software to potential customers.