What is SQF?
The SQF Code is designed for use in all sectors of the food industry as a HACCP-based quality management system to reduce the incidence of unsafe food reaching the marketplace. It is a food safety program that also covers product quality. It offers benefits to suppliers and buyers at all links in the food supply chain by addressing the buyer’s food safety and quality requirements, and provides a solution for the suppliers.
First launched in 1994, The Food Marketing Institute acquired the rights to the SQF program in 2003 and established the SQF Institute (SQFI) division to manage the program. Now in its seventh edition, SQF Code is recognized by GFSI as meeting its benchmark requirements. New modules have been added to address GMP requirements within the following industries: Animal Feed, Pet Food, and Farming of Plant Products.
The program provides independent certification that a supplier’s food safety and quality management system complies with international and domestic food safety regulations. This enables suppliers to help assure their customers that food has been produced, processed, prepared, and handled according to the highest possible standards, at all levels of the supply chain.
The SQF Code is divided into three certification levels: Level 1 focused on food safety fundamentals; at Level 2, certified HACCP food safety plans are recognized by GFSI; and at Level 3, comprehensive food safety and quality management system actions exceed the GFSI benchmark requirements.
The SQF program has many unique features that help ensure trust and consistency in the auditing process. Certification bodies that are licensed by the SQFI to perform SQF audits are subject to regular assessments of their certification and audit activities by internationally recognized accreditation bodies licensed by SQFI. Auditors are only permitted to perform audits in the food industry sectors for which they have been registered, and in which they have extensive expertise and experience.
Certifying an organization’s food management system against the SQF program requirements brings the following benefits:
- Enhancement of the organization’s food safety management system;
- It demonstrates commitment to producing and trading safe food;
- It increases consumer confidence in the products produced;
- Brand equity is enhanced;
- It prepares organizations for inspection by regulatory authorities and other stakeholders;
- It improves new market and customer prospects; and
- If SQF level 3 is achieved organizations can use the SQF quality mark on their products.
The SQF certification process consists of seven steps:
- Step A – A proposal is provided based on the size and nature of an organization. Once this is accepted the audit process can proceed.
- Step B – Once an organization has accepted the proposal, it registers on the SQFI website (www.sqfi.com). This is a requirement of the SQFI.
- Step C – There is then an optional ‘gap-analysis’ stage assessing an organization’s readiness for the audit. This is often useful in identifying any weaknesses in systems and in building confidence before the formal audit.
- Step D – The first part of the formal audit is the ‘Stage 1 – Assessment Process: Document Review’. Here the compliance of an organization’s documented system is evaluated against the requirements of the standard with the goal of achieving a better understanding of the nature of the organization, planning the rest of the audit as effectively as possible and examining key elements of the system at a basic level. After this, organizations receive a report identifying any concerns or observed noncompliances so that immediate action can be taken as required. All major nonconformities need to be closed out prior to the Stage 2 audit.
- Step E – This is ‘Stage 2 – Assessment Process: Certification Audit’ of the initial audit process. The audit includes interviews with employees and examination of records. Observation of an organization’s working practices determines how compliant its actual processes are with the standard and with its documentation system. At the end of this stage, the findings of the audit along with other observations and opportunities for improvement are presented to the organization. Once nonconformities have been addressed a technical review of the audit is conducted by an authorized Certification Manager to confirm the issuance of a certificate.
- Step F – Surveillance visits, if required, are scheduled at six-month intervals depending on the outcome of the certification audit and the grade received. During the visits, we review the implementation of the action plan addressing the past nonconformities and examining certain mandatory and other selected parts of the system in line with an audit plan provided before each visit.
- Step G – Recertification audits are scheduled at twelve-month intervals. The Recertification audit is undertaken to verify the continued effectiveness of an organization’s SQF System in its entirety.