Since taking the reins of GFSI in October 2019, Director Erica Sheward has helped to launch some of the most ambitious initiatives in the organisation’s recent history. Erica, who has over two decades of food safety experience in the public, private and academic sectors, is leading the charge on GFSI’s Race to the Top, a proactive effort to advance food safety progress and oversight. She also oversaw the publication of Version 2020 of the GFSI Benchmarking Requirements, the first full revision since 2017.
Soon after Erica announced the Race to the Top and Version 2020 at the opening plenary of the GFSI Conference in Seattle, she sat down with IHS Markit journalist Sara Lewis to discuss her plans for the future. Watch their conversation on today’s episode of the GFSI Experts Series, or read the transcript below.
Sara Lewis: You took over as director of GFSI in October 2019, so you’re still relatively new in the job. What are your plans for the organisation?
Erica Sheward: Well, big plans. Big plans to modernise, to innovate, to move forward. We’re coining the innovation that we’ve got planned as the Race to the Top. We recognise that, although we’ve achieved a lot over the last 20 years, we need to continue to move forward and continue to face some of the food safety challenges that we’ve got in our world head-on.
Sara: What type of things would you like to change?
Erica: Well, fundamentally, we’ve got to work with the grain of the organisation. We are a harmonisation and benchmarking organisation. We set the bar. We’re in a very privileged position, because we don’t need to worry about any commercial interests. We’re just setting the bar as high as we can set it to achieve, obviously, safe food. And on that basis, we need to continue to raise the bar as we see issues emerging that are not currently covered by existing benchmarking arrangements, and then work with our stakeholder community to ensure that they’re able to deliver for us on the ground in terms of the certification and delivery of the audits.
Sara: GFSI has just unveiled Version 2020 of its Benchmarking Requirements. It represents a major overhaul, which you called a revolution earlier. Why was such a major revision necessary?
Erica: Well, I think because the world is changing so quickly, isn’t it? It’s about emerging issues, things that we need to not just respond to and react to that are in our line of sight now, but also things that are coming down the track. We’re thinking very much about what inputs we need to help us assess what food safety risks, hazards and emerging risks are going to be coming that we need to be thinking about, and how they would manifest themselves in a benchmarking requirement that might be higher than the existing one. The process is incredibly thorough and very robust. It takes multiple stakeholders to come together to create those requirements, and then it obviously has a knock-on effect to the CPOs and the CBs that are operating under our brand.
Sara: Can you explain what are the differences between earlier versions of the Benchmarking Requirements and Version 2020?
Erica: The direct comparison between the last version and Version 2020 — 7.2 and now Version 2020 — are things like food safety culture as a requirement, and certainly food fraud. There’s a big uplift in thinking in terms of food fraud. Those two things are the standout features, I would say.
Sara: Will there be a transition period?
Erica: Oh, absolutely. There’s always a transition period. The idea that we would move today, at the press of a button, from one set of requirements to another, of course, doesn’t work that way. There’s a transition period into 2021. The audits that will flow out of the new version will not manifest themselves until 2021, because the CPOs will have to bring us their standards and make sure that they’re aligned and that they’re meeting our recognition requirements. That is a process in and of itself.
Sara: What further changes do you think could come in a future update? When will that be?
Erica: That is a really good question, and a lot of people are curious to know that. The idea that we would just continually, perennially, move to upgrade the Benchmarking Requirements is not a given. We would not move to raise the bar unless we had an evidence base to tell us that we needed to. That would be some scientific evidence to say that there’s something fundamental to food safety that we would need to include that wasn’t currently there. It’s a kind of continued gap analysis, looking at things that may or may not be there, and waiting for people to tell us things that they think we’ve missed. If nothing comes, we won’t just make another version for another version’s sake. That would be ridiculous. We’re thinking about things based on our inputs, our scientific inputs, that we think may feature relatively soon, particularly around climate change and food safety risks linked to climate change. (We’re) thinking about what that’s going to mean, and what additional level of oversight we would need to consider (if) people had to adjust to that.
Sara: Are you satisfied with the take-up of GFSI certification? Are there countries or regions where companies are reluctant to sign up, and what more could you do to get more on board?
Erica: Again, that’s an excellent question. This isn’t a numbers game. A lot of people think it is a numbers game. We would rather have less certificates, but that everyone could trust, that they were confident were on the back of a great audit. But obviously, our ambition is that we increase the pool of certified sites, because that’s obviously what we’re here to do. I think, in terms of businesses’ awareness of GFSI-certified programmes and certification and what it can bring for them, there is still a job to do, and that’s talking up the benefits. But we do rely very heavily on our stakeholders, who engage much more closely (and) directly with businesses than we do, routinely, to sell those benefits to businesses. Obviously, our board member companies all require GFSI certification as part of their requirements, so if you’re servicing any of our board member companies, the demand is already there for a certificate. That top-down approach has been very helpful, given a number of our board member companies are obviously the world’s largest food and drink brands. So that helps.
Sara: The EU’s new Official Controls Regulation took effect on 14 December, and it introduces a risk-based approach to inspections where, for food, the lesser the risk, the fewer inspections are required. Do you think GFSI has a role to play in helping with compliance and lowering companies’ risk profile?
Erica: Oh, absolutely. One of our strategic priorities is around public-private partnerships, and the specific outcome that we are seeking to achieve through that strand of work is around getting to a place where regulators, national regulators and local regulators, will take a GFSI certificate as an indicator of compliance, and that they will use it as a tool to make decisions that are risk-based in terms of where they allocate their resources, what they regulate (and) how they regulate not just in terms of policy, but certainly in the delivery of regulations and the enforcement.
Sara: Are you getting a message from regulators that they share this goal?
Erica: At the end of the day, many of them are challenged by their resource constraints. They know that they have to regulate in a risk-based way, and they need to be seeking ways that they can make different intervention choices and not continue to do the same things everywhere. In some cases, we already have regulators that accept GFSI certification and deliver earned recognition through that, so they’ll inspect less or inspect differently as a consequence of that, and in other places there is still a journey to be gone on. I think the challenge for regulators is that if their rules sets are not principles-based, if they’re very prescriptive, they find it difficult to understand where our high-level requirements and their prescriptive rule sets actually come together. I think we worked very effectively yesterday to take our regulators on a journey of understanding (of) how our world and their world can come together to be complementary. Because my background is regulation, I’ve always moved very strongly to say that GFSI certification is not a replacement for regulation. That’s not what we would ever advocate. Regulators have a very robust role to play. But we would ask them to consider the value of certification in their risk-based decision making.
Sara: Which countries have already kind of taken it on board and accepted it?
Erica: Canada, to a greater or lesser extent, and certainly Australia and New Zealand have been very much on the front of it. We have a number of developing countries who have recognised the value on the basis of the fact that their own regulatory systems are somewhat underdeveloped, so they recognise the value of having certification as an indicator of not just compliance, but of food safety. That helps them. I think we are still challenged in a number of big markets where we would want to continue to work to move that conversation forward.
It’s an interesting feature of our work, particularly for me, because obviously, that is my background. That’s what I’ve been doing for the past seven or eight years: leading global initiatives around getting regulators to understand the principles of better regulation, and not being wedded to old ways of doing things. Inspect, inspect, inspect; that’s not the only tool in your box, you know. There are other tools you can use.
Sara: Thanks very much.
Erica: My pleasure. Thank you.
To learn more about the Race to the Top, be sure to catch our upcoming episode with GFSI Board of Directors Co-Chairs Roy Kirby and Craig Wilson. Then, keep an eye out for our upcoming deep dive into Version 2020 with Olivier Robin, Chair of the Stakeholders Advisory Forum that helped to shape the revision. Do not forget to follow #GFSIexperts on Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn and subscribe to GFSI News to make sure you do not miss an episode!