Using food safety findings from industry and third parties could help regulators better target resources, but there are issues to overcome on both sides, according to experts.

Speakers discussed the use of voluntary third-party assurance (vTPA) programs at the Vienna Food Safety Forum, organized by UNIDO, the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment of Australia and the Standards and Trade Development Facility (STDF). These programs can be used by authorities to inform risk profiling of businesses and target resources within national food control systems.

In late 2021, the Codex Alimentarius Commission adopted guidelines on the assessment and use of vTPA programs.

Pros and cons for regulators
Mike O’Neill, head of Codex policy and strategy at the Food Standards Agency, said the roles of companies and authorities don’t change.

“The food business remains responsible for producing safe food and the regulator remains responsible for verifying they are complying with legal requirements. The conformity data that the vTPA owners have is owned by the food businesses. If, and when, shared it can allow the regulator to more accurately risk profile a business. It’s about avoiding and removing some of the duplication,” he said.

“It’s very important that all stakeholders are aware such an approach is being taken by the regulator and this shared data is being used to adjust inspection frequencies or intensities, so you may spend less time at a business because you are assured by data from the vTPA owner.

“When something goes wrong at a food business the risk we carry from the relationship with the vTPA owner is the consumer is not going to blame the vTPA owner, they are going to look at the regulator and say you turned your back. Which is why it’s important for us to have this relationship with the vTPA owner and to monitor and fix problems where we find issues. It’s a risk we carry all the time and we can’t go to sleep on the job.”

O’Neill added a World Health Organization briefing on the topic targeted at low and middle-income countries will be published shortly.

Peter Wend, from the Federal Office of Consumer Protection and Food Safety (BVL) in Germany, said there are two different approaches.

“One is direct contact between the authority and private assurance scheme and the other is interaction between the authority and the food business. In a pilot project in Germany, the food business got a bonus when they followed a vTPA approach. If the assessment is good, their risk group would change and they would get controlled less,” he said.

“Studies have shown certified food businesses, in general, perform better during official controls. We know regulators have limited resources, so if we know private assurance schemes do a good job, they are accredited and their certifications improve food safety, regulators can trust their results and consider them for official controls. Regulators then have more time to focus on risky parts in businesses.”

Wend added a Heads of Agencies working group is also looking at private assurance schemes.

The Standards and Trade Development Facility (STDF) is running several pilot projects on the use of vTPA programs in Rwanda and Uganda, with Mali and Senegal as well as in Belize and Honduras.

Marlynne Hopper, deputy head of STDF, said the projects are looking at how developing countries can improve or change how their manage food safety systems.

“These pilots are part of the solution, it’s not going to change everything but it’s looking at a different way to address one part of the food safety challenge in countries. They are based on a changing relationship between the private sector and regulators. Opportunities are to support more risk-based approaches, target resources more effectively, reduce the regulatory burden and improve compliance. When we do anything differently there are always challenges, concerns and questions.”

Industry and scheme owner view
Gabriel Hanne, head of quality assurance at Metro in Germany, said in principle, vTPA is an interesting approach with potential.

“If you do it right it can contribute to more efficient risk management processes for all parties. It could be a promising starting point for further developing national food control systems. But the point is: It could. We need to answer some questions to make it successful in more countries. I believe the food safety system of a business with third party assurance is more reliable than those without such assurance. Certification standards usually go beyond legal requirements. Why should an authority consider both groups in the same risk category? A benefit could be making national food control systems more efficient and effective. It could give authorities a tool to use available resources and focus on weaker areas,” he said.

“A business would carefully evaluate the risks and benefits before disclosing confidential data and information. This is a clear risk. Appropriate compensation for this risk could be a reduction of intensity and frequency in official inspections and the related costs and efforts. According to the current Codex text, it may reduce intensity and frequency but they ‘may,’ it is not a firm commitment. A hope for a benefit may not be concrete enough to encourage food businesses to embark on such a courageous undertaking but this is something we can fix during implementation.”

Philippa Wiltshire, head of operations at Red Tractor, which is a vTPA scheme, said a relationship with the FSA has developed over a decade.

“We experienced nervousness in the UK but over time it turns into trust by both parties. We are a national assurance scheme so when we share data we are not giving commercial insights into any particular supply chains. It is really important that data sharing provides a benefit to authorities, the vTPA or food business involved and is done within a secure environment. By sharing data as the assurance scheme, we can give the authority reassurance that the scheme is robust,” she said.  

“It is on an aggregated basis and performance of the entire scheme and not individuals. We share about our standards, the number of inspections we’ve done, how often and how they’ve been done and the number of certification suspensions and withdrawals. The authority is also sharing with us what they are finding on farm, so are we finding the same areas and issues? The authorities provide aggregated data on inspections so we can go back to our members and demonstrate this arrangement is providing them with a benefit as they are getting fewer inspections compared to businesses not part of Red Tractor.”

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