In 2000, the Consumer Goods Forum established the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) to increase the safety of the world's food supply and to harmonize food safety regulations worldwide. In 2013, a university research team in conjunction with Diversey Consulting (Sealed Air), the Consumer Goods Forum, and officers of GFSI solicited input from more than 15,000 GFSI-certified food producers worldwide to determine whether GFSI certification had lived up to these expectations. A total of 828 usable questionnaires were analyzed, representing about 2,300 food manufacturing facilities and food suppliers in 21 countries, mainly across Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and North America. Nearly 90% of these certified suppliers perceived GFSI as being beneficial for addressing their food safety concerns, and respondents were eight times more likely to repeat the certification process knowing what it entailed. Nearly three-quarters (74%) of these food manufacturers would choose to go through the certification process again even if certification were not required by one of their current retail customers. Important drivers for becoming GFSI certified included continuing to do business with an existing customer, starting to do business with new customer, reducing the number of third-party food safety audits, and continuing improvement of their food safety program. Although 50% or fewer respondents stated that they saw actual increases in sales, customers, suppliers, or employees, significantly more companies agreed than disagreed that there was an increase in these key performance indicators in the year following GFSI certification. A majority of respondents (81%) agreed that there was a substantial investment in staff time since certification, and 50% agreed there was a significant capital investment. This survey is the largest and most representative of global food manufacturers conducted to date.

The Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) was developed in 2000 following several high-profile foodborne illness outbreaks that caused consumer confidence in the food supply to drop to an all-time low (3). Since then, more than15,000 international food and beverage manufacturing companies have become compliant with GFSI's food safety standards (4). The daily management of GFSI is under the direction of the Consumer Goods Forum, a global network of nearly 400 of the world's largest consumer goods retailers and their manufacturers and suppliers from 150 countries (3). For more than 15 years, food safety experts from food retailers, food manufacturers, and consumer groups have continuously updated GFSI's guidance document (4). This document has become the benchmark against which private third-party food safety auditing schemes are certified as being equivalent.. Individual food manufacturers select a scheme against which they are audited; when a company has passed the audit, the company is then certified against the benchmarked scheme selected. Third-party auditors work with more than 100,000 food manufacturing facilities in 150 countries to assist them in validating their food safety management practices with the benchmarked GFSI standards. More background on the development of international food safety standards has been provided by Crandall and O'Bryan (1) and Wellik (8).

Several major food retailers, including Walmart (Bentonville, AR) and Metro (Montreal, Quebec, Canada), have implemented requirements that all of their food suppliers must be certified against one of the GFSI benchmark schemes (8). These requirements may be the first step in the global harmonization of food safety standards because of the multinational market scope of many of these retailers. Benefits for certification under GFSI are expected to include more efficient and profitable food manufacturing companies, increased compliance with ever-evolving food safety legislation, less redundancies in single retailers' food safety audits, and improved consumer confidence in a safer food supply (8). In 2012, Crandall et al. (2) reported on the impact that Walmart had when it began requiring their U.S. suppliers to become GFSI compliant. From that online survey of 174 retail U.S. food suppliers, Crandall et al. determined that the primary reason for becoming GFSI compliant was to meet a current retail customer's (e.g., Walmart) requirements. Most of those suppliers agreed that the safety of their food products had increased as a result of going through the GFSI compliance process and that GFSI compliance resulted in better training for their production employees and better documentation of their companies' food safety management practices. However, these suppliers reported only a minimal decrease (an average of one less audit per year) in the number of redundant third-party food safety audits performed for their other retail customers each year.

Despite the best efforts of regulators and the food industry, there has been no significant decrease in the number of food recalls. The newly instituted U.S. Food Safety Modernization Act now allows for mandatory food recalls. Food recalls requested by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food Safety Inspection Service have steadily increased from 75 in 2013 to 94 in 2014 and 150 in 2015 (5), whereas food recalls requested by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration remained stable with 616 in 2013, 557 in 2014, and 621 in 2015 (6).

The study reported here was initiated at the global (Consumer Goods Forum) level to determine how successful GFSI has been in meeting the rising food safety expectations around the globe. This multinational assessment determined companies' food safety policies and costs and benefits before and after becoming certified by one of the benchmark third-party schemes under GFSI. This article presents the most conclusive findings from perhaps the largest international survey of 828 food manufacturers regarding the costs and benefits of becoming compliant with one of the benchmarked GFSI schemes. Only one response per company was permitted regardless of the number of manufacturing locations.

Questionnaires

A questionnaire was drafted and revised by Diversey Consulting (Sealed Air, Paris, France) and McCallum Layton (Allto Consulting, Chapel Allerton, UK) with input from the project steering committee at the University of Arkansas (Fayetteville), the Consumer Goods Forum, and the officers of GFSI (see supplemental material). The completed survey was then translated into 10 languages (English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, Finnish, Swedish, and Danish) with appropriate modifications for U.S. English and Latin American Spanish. Employees of the certifying bodies, who already had an established trust relationship, selected knowledgeable food safety representatives at each food manufacturing location in 21 countries, contacted them between October and November 2013, and then sent them a copy of the survey via e-mail. Data were collected on the food safety and business impacts that these manufacturers experienced as result of becoming certified under one of the benchmarked GFSI schemes.

Demographics

Responses to demographic questions were used to classify the respondents according to their third-party GFSI certification scheme, their region of interest, and the risk category of the foods they produced. Companies indicated the country where their plant(s) were located or their region of market interest. These responses were combined into three primary regions: North America, Europe, and Australasia. Companies with an interest outside of these regions or in multiple regions were assigned to a “global” category. Companies indicated the GFSI scheme of their certification; however, two schemes predominated in their responses. Companies responding with multiple schemes were assigned to a principal scheme. Companies also indicated the types of food products that they produced. Using this information, the project steering group assigned these responses to one of three product risk categories (high, medium, or low) according to the criteria described by Crandall et al. (2).

Benefits of becoming certified

Two key survey items asked whether GFSI certification was indeed beneficial overall and whether the respondent would become certified again knowing what was required. Responses to these items were collected on a 5-point ordinal scale with the neutral value in the middle. These items were then combined to form a binary scale by combining the “strongly agree” and “agree” responses together and the “disagree” and “strongly disagree” responses together. Only 3.5% of the responses were lost by eliminating the neutral (middle level) responses. After making these simplifications of the data, a contingency analysis was used to compare the interrelations or interactions between the responses to these two items.

Rationale for becoming certified

Another question asked the respondents to rank in order of importance their top three reasons for becoming GFSI certified. Preliminary surveys and interviews with suppliers were initially used to generate eight specific reasons. An optional write-in reason was also allowed. Because there is no definitive method for summarizing responses such as these, we suggest the use of multiple scoring systems, as outlined below. Consistency among different weighting methods lends credence to the conclusions. For each respondent, a rank was assigned to each reason for becoming certified with an arbitrary tie rank value of 6.5 assigned to any reason that was not in their top three reasons. Three weighting systems were used to classify these three most important reasons. A first-only scoring system assigned the full weight only to the primary reason and no weight to the second, third, or any of the other reasons. An equal-weight system assigned equal weights (one-third of a point) to any reason within the top three and no weight to the remaining reasons. The third scoring system was based upon the Heisman type scoring, which is between the other two systems. The Heisman system gives more weight to the primary reason (one-half of a point), less weight to the second reason (one-third of a point), even less weight to the third reason (one-sixth of a point), and no weight to the remaining reasons.

Intensions, compliance, benefits, and costs

A set of 24 questions asked the respondents for their level of agreement with statements relating to their companies' intentions, regulatory compliance, other benefits, and the costs that resulted from becoming GFSI certified. These items were meant to address the following questions posed by GFSI management at the outset of this project:

(i) From the users' standpoint, has GFSI certification done what it was intended to do?

(ii) How has GFSI certification improved your company's regulatory compliance?

(iii) Are there other benefits of complying with GFSI certification?

(iv) Are there other costs of complying with GFSI certification?

These responses were originally collected on a 5-point ordinal scale, with the neutral level in the middle. Responses were collapsed to a 3-point scale by combining the top two and the bottom two levels. Items were analyzed separately in a generalized linear model using a multinomial distribution and a cumulative logistic link function. A stepwise method was used to select the best subset of the three demographic items (scheme, region, and risk) to be included in the final model. For each significant effect, the primary contrast of interest was investigated: British Retail Consortium (BRC) versus Safe Quality Food (SQF) for the scheme, North America versus Europe for the region, and high versus low for the risk category of food manufactured.

Key performance indicators

Another set of items addressed key performance indicators (KPIs) of the companies before and after they completed their GFSI certification. Their responses could be either a 3-point ordinal score or an actual numeric value before and after certification. Responses returned as the numeric before-and-after values were converted to the 3-point scale. The ordinal responses were analyzed separately in a generalized linear model using a multinomial distribution and a cumulative logistic link function. A stepwise method was used to select the best subset of the three demographic items (scheme, region, and risk) to be included in the final model. For each significant effect, the primary contrast of interest was investigated: BRC versus SQF for the scheme, North America versus Europe for the region, and high versus low for risk. Because of the extreme skewness of responses and outliers returned on the numeric before-and-after scale, a comparative analysis was done on only the actual numeric values.

All analyses were conducted using SAS/STAT software, version 9.4 (SAS for Windows, SAS Institute, Cary, NC).

Demographics

Approximately 15,000 questionnaires were e-mailed to employees of GFSI-certified companies who were knowledgeable about the food safety culture in their facilities. Each company's respective GFSI third-party auditors, who in most cases had a close personal working relationship that developed during the initial GFSI certification process, identified these 15,000 expert contacts. A total of 834 completed questionnaires were given to the university team for analysis. Respondents represented the geographic regions of the Americas (the United States, Canada, and Mexico), Western Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. After removing respondents who were not GFSI certified, we had 828 usable questionnaires, a 5.5% response rate.

The average number of manufacturing facilities per company responding to this survey was 5.3, ranging from companies with a single manufacturing site (47% of the responding companies) to a company with more than 200 manufacturing sites. Only one response per company, regardless of the number of manufacturing plants, was included in the survey. Regarding manufacturers' locations or their primary market area, 52% of the respondents were from North America including Mexico, 34% were in Europe, 10% were in the Pacific Region (Australia and New Zealand), and 4% were global. Thirty-five companies either choose the global designation or had more than one food manufacturing facility in more than one region. Ninety percent of the benchmarked schemes that companies were certified against were either BRC or SQF (Table 1). In the North American region, 67% were certified under SQF and 29% were certified under BRC, whereas in Europe 82% were certified under BRC (Table 1). Among GFSI-certified companies, those in the Pacific Region had the highest rate of additional non-GFSI certifications (70%), with the majority of those (77%) having hazard analysis critical control point (HACCP) certifications.

TABLE 1.

Demographics of respondents

Demographics of respondents
Demographics of respondents

Respondents were asked to list the types of foods they manufactured, and these responses were used to categorize the manufacturer according to relative risk (high, medium, or low) according to the scheme outlined by Crandall et al. (2). According to their responses, a majority of the manufacturers (53%) made foods that posed a low food safety risk (Table 1). In conversations with industry representatives, we had formed the hypothesis that for attaining GFSI certification there is a marked difference between manufacturers of low-risk and those of high-risk foods. Manufacturers of high-risk foods, especially those manufacturing meat proteins and ready-to-eat foods, had for many years been complying with increasingly stringent food safety regulations and were already experienced in complying with third-party auditors from numerous suppliers. However, this hypothesis was not supported when we used risk as a delineator to explain differences among respondents as was revealed in later questions.

Benefits of GFSI certification

Respondents were overwhelmingly positive when asked whether becoming GFSI certified was beneficial to their company. A substantial majority (90%) reported they found GFSI certification to be very or fairly beneficial (Table 2). No differences in responses were found among the demographic delineators of geographic regions, benchmarked certification scheme, or food risk category (data not shown). A second important question in our survey was whether manufacturers who were not required to become GFSI certified by an existing customer would be willing to become certified. Almost three-quarters (74%) answered that they would become GFSI certified again even if not required to do so. Companies that said GFSI was beneficial were eight times more likely to also state that because of these perceived benefits they would expend the required resources to become GFSI certified if they had not already done so. This result is a strong affirmation by those professionals most knowledgeable about weighing the costs and benefits of GFSI certification.

TABLE 2.

Was GFSI certification beneficial (n = 799)?a

Was GFSI certification beneficial (n = 799)?a
Was GFSI certification beneficial (n = 799)?a

Rationale for becoming GFSI certified

Respondents were asked to rank their top three reasons for becoming GFSI certified. See the questionnaire (supplemental material) for a list of all possible responses. Regardless of the weighting method used, “an existing customer requirement” was by far the predominant reason for becoming certified (Table 3). This reason was previously identified as the strongest driver for becoming GFSI certified among U.S. food manufacturers (2). Some food manufacturers felt that the potential to gain new customers justified the cost of becoming GFSI compliant. Certification offers a substantial business opportunity for manufacturers, and this opportunity may expand as additional retailers require GFSI compliance for their new suppliers. Some consistency was found in the second, third, and fourth place reasons, but the separation was much less obvious. There was no consistency among the remaining reasons.

TABLE 3.

Top reasons for companies becoming GFSI certified (n = 828)

Top reasons for companies becoming GFSI certified (n = 828)
Top reasons for companies becoming GFSI certified (n = 828)

Perspective on whether GFSI certification had the intended results

Respondents were asked whether, from their perspective, GFSI certification had accomplished what it was intended to do. Figure 1 shows the percentage agreement and disagreement with the six questions on the impact of GFSI certification subdivided by respondents from the two principal regions where these differences were significant. No significant differences between the two principal benchmark schemes nor between manufacturers of high- and low-risk foods was found for these questions. North America manufacturers had significantly higher levels of agreement than did European manufacturers, but the overwhelming majority of all companies agreed that GFSI certification was having the intended results.

FIGURE 1.

From your perspective, has GFSI certification done what it was intended to do? There were significant differences between North American and European respondents in their agreement with the first, second, and fourth statements. The bars denote the 95% confidence limits.

FIGURE 1.

From your perspective, has GFSI certification done what it was intended to do? There were significant differences between North American and European respondents in their agreement with the first, second, and fourth statements. The bars denote the 95% confidence limits.

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One of the long-held hopes for GFSI is that a single, benchmarked third-party audit would suffice for all of a manufacturer's customers. One of GFSI's long-term goals is to minimize redundant customer-required third-party food safety audits. In North America, mean agreement with this premise was 51% versus only 36% overall. Our analysis indicates that more work is needed in this area. To further global harmonization of food safety regulations it might be helpful to educate other retailers about the cost savings to their manufacturing suppliers. A global, harmonized food safety system that would allow companies to reduce resources and staff time allotted to the auditing process would free resources that could be applied to more pressing, individual food safety concerns rather than preparing for yet another redundant food safety audit.

Impact of GFSI certification on regulatory compliance

There were significant differences between North American and European respondents concerning their beliefs that completing GFSI certification improved their preparation for current and future regulations; 76% of North American respondents agreed with that statement but only 60% of European respondents agreed (Fig. 2). There was significantly higher agreement among manufacturers of low-risk foods (74%) than among manufacturers of high-risk foods (62%) that the GFSI certification process had improved the regulatory compliance for their businesses. These findings are important in today's evolving regulatory climate. Recent history leads us to expect more regulations as governmental regulators across the globe react to consumers' concerns fueled by numerous national and global food safety incidents. GFSI has enabled these certified manufacturers to respond quickly to the next regulatory change. Almost half of the respondents (49%) saw a decrease in required corrective actions following audits after completing the GFSI certification process. Significant differences were noted in responses to the question of whether certification has led to the substantial benefit of “an increased market share.” For North American manufacturers, more than 44% noted a market share increase, whereas 32% of European manufacturers noted such an increase (Fig. 2).

FIGURE 2.

How has GFSI certification improved your companies' regulatory compliance? There were significant differences between North American and European respondents in their agreement with the first and fourth statements and between manufacturers of high- versus low-risk foods in their agreement with the second statement. The bars denote the 95% confidence limits.

FIGURE 2.

How has GFSI certification improved your companies' regulatory compliance? There were significant differences between North American and European respondents in their agreement with the first and fourth statements and between manufacturers of high- versus low-risk foods in their agreement with the second statement. The bars denote the 95% confidence limits.

Close modal

Other benefits of becoming GFSI certified

This survey also revealed that 77% of the respondents thought that GFSI certification had increased efficiency by bringing more consistency to their food safety documentation and operations (Fig. 3). There were significant differences among manufacturers who said GFSI certification had improved the quality of the food produced; 50% of SQF manufacturers and 42% of BRC manufacturers agreed with that statement. There were also significant differences in the agreement regarding the amount of improvement and the time saved in internal auditing. Substantial improvements were reported by 44% of North American manufacturers but only 34% of European manufacturers. GFSI certification for some of these manufacturers may have been the first time they had to develop and validated a complete record keeping system, especially those manufacturers who were less familiar with third-party audits. This finding probably indicates that maintaining GFSI compliance records required manufacturers to spend more time on their own internal audits (Fig. 3).

FIGURE 3.

What are some of the other benefits of complying with GFSI certification? There were significant differences between the manufacturers certified under the BRC and SQF schemes in their agreement with the second statement and between North American and European respondents in their agreement with the third statement. The bars denote the 95% confidence limits.

FIGURE 3.

What are some of the other benefits of complying with GFSI certification? There were significant differences between the manufacturers certified under the BRC and SQF schemes in their agreement with the second statement and between North American and European respondents in their agreement with the third statement. The bars denote the 95% confidence limits.

Close modal

Actual data benchmarks

Because the actual values given in response to the questions concerning KPI benchmarks were not normally distributed, we decided that formal tests of significance (and corresponding P values) were inappropriate for these data; however, the respondents represented an important if minor portion of the sample. Instead, simple means and medians were calculated (Table 4). The presence of extreme outliers can be verified by looking careful at the percent differences between means and medians for specific benchmarks. The percent difference columns indicate the reported percentage increase or decrease in the means and medians of each benchmark value following certification. For example, the mean sales by businesses in both North America and Europe increased substantially, i.e., by >25%, in the year following GFSI certification, with mean increases of almost $1.8 million in Europe and $18.7 million in North America. However, when comparing the medians after ranking the values from smallest to largest, the year-over-year difference was only $626,000 in Europe, and there was no year-over-year difference in North America for the company in the midpoint of the data. Although ≤50% of respondents stated that they saw an actual increase in sales, customers, suppliers, or employees, significantly more companies experienced an increase in these KPIs than experienced a decrease. Because this international survey covered 21 countries, some of these increases in KPIs may have been due to an overall increase in the business climate; however, it is just as likely that some locations were experiencing a downturn. These responses provide useful indicators of KPIs as a result of becoming GFSI certified.

TABLE 4.

Changes in business profile benchmark values year over year following GFSI certification

Changes in business profile benchmark values year over year following GFSI certification
Changes in business profile benchmark values year over year following GFSI certification

Cost of GFSI certification

A majority of respondents (81%) agreed that certification had required a significant investment of staff time (Fig. 4). Significant differences were found between North America manufacturers (91% agreed with this statement) and European manufacturers (79% agreed). A smaller majority (58%) of the overall respondents agreed that becoming certified had required significant changes to their company's previous food safety management systems. Significant differences existed between manufacturers based on the food risk level; 66% of manufacturers of low-risk foods agreed that GFSI compliance had required substantial changes, but still a majority (54%) of manufacturers of high-risk foods agreed with this statement, although arguably these manufacturers had more robust food safety management systems at the outset. Half of manufacturers (50%) agreed that compliance required significant capital investment, and a slightly smaller percentage (46%) had to hire external help to complete the certification process. However, only slightly more manufacturers disagreed (30%) than agreed (29%) that certification had led to significantly higher production costs (Table 4).

FIGURE 4.

What have been your other costs of complying with GFSI certification? There were significant differences between North American and European responses to the first statement and between responses of manufacturers of high- and low-risk foods to the second statement. The bars denote the 95% confidence limits.

FIGURE 4.

What have been your other costs of complying with GFSI certification? There were significant differences between North American and European responses to the first statement and between responses of manufacturers of high- and low-risk foods to the second statement. The bars denote the 95% confidence limits.

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Change in KPIs since GFSI certification

Respondents compared their plant's food safety culture before and after becoming GFSI certified (Fig. 5). Respondents were asked whether 15 selected practices had changed since certification. A large percentage (69%) found they were spending more time on their internal audits. As a result of certification, 69% also reported spending more time training production workers, 65% spent more time on management staff training, and 50% spent additional time training upper-level senior managers on food safety issues. Significant differences were found in the responses to this statement; in North America 58% agreed and in Europe 45% agreed. Most respondents reported little change in their KPIs. Cost savings were reflected in a decrease in product waste reported by 27% of respondents, and 21% fewer recalls due to food safety concerns was reported. Manufacturers in Europe subjected significantly more of their incoming ingredients to HACCP tests (46%) than did North American manufacturers (38%). The same difference was found for an increase in the number of third-party audits required of suppliers in Europe (43%) versus in North America (31%).

FIGURE 5.

Manufacturers seeing significant changes in KPI benchmarks following GFSI certification. There were significant differences between North American and European agreement with the fourth, sixth, seventh, and eighth statements. The bars denote the 95% confidence limits.

FIGURE 5.

Manufacturers seeing significant changes in KPI benchmarks following GFSI certification. There were significant differences between North American and European agreement with the fourth, sixth, seventh, and eighth statements. The bars denote the 95% confidence limits.

Close modal

The six statements on the right side of Figure 5 were expected to have a greater number of “fewer” than “more” responses, which was the case. Noncompliance, regulatory violations, wasted production, and consumer and customer complaints all decreased following certification. Out of specification production decreased as did the number of food safety recalls. Although 21% of companies reported a drop in the number of food safety recalls, multinational insurance companies estimated the cost of the average recall at $10 million, enough to cause extreme financial hardship for all but the largest manufacturers (7).

Since 2000, with the establishment of the GFSI, there have been recurring questions concerning the validity of the underlying benefits for individual retailers and food manufacturers from these multinational efforts to increase global harmonization of food safety regulations. The results of this study of GFSI-certified food producers worldwide indicate that GFSI has lived up to its lofty expectations. We believed at the outset of this survey that it would be advantageous to leverage the established relationships between the third-party auditor and the food safety professionals at the companies who were being asked to complete the survey.

Certain limitations are associated with the narrow intent of this survey. Ideally, we could have included a representative sample of companies that were never GFSI certified or companies that have let their GFSI certifications lapse. Global regions, e.g., Canada, the United States, and Mexico, were pooled, but we are well aware that national food regulations within each country play a major role in individual companies' food safety programs. Proponents of an internationally coordinated approach to food safety should consider targeting their marketing efforts at the full range of food retailers, promoting the benefits of food safety harmonization and asking that these retailers require their current and new suppliers to become GFSI certified. The current strategy of marketing GFSI to individual food manufacturers is slow and piecemeal. These food retailers may want to integrate their individual food suppliers' third-party requirements into a global standard. This integration would strengthen systems such as GFSI and would allow individual food manufacturers to spend their limited food safety resources on projects that could substantially reduce their food safety risks rather than preparing for yet another redundant third-party audit. This survey provides a snapshot of a substantial segment of the attitudes and experiences of about 2,300 facilities and sheds light on opportunities for changing the marketing approach for a global food safety system. This article provides unique insight in the movement to globalize food safety and strongly affirms that most food suppliers realize the benefits of becoming GFSI certified.

Support for this research was provided by the Food Safety Division of Walmart, Diversey Consulting (a division of Sealed Air Corp.), and the Consumers Goods Forum.

Supplemental material associated with this article can be found online at: https://doi.org/10.4315/0362-028X.JFP-16-481.s1.

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