The BRC standard, which was designed to avoid unnecessary duplication by enabling suppliers to be audited by third parties against a single, consistent standard accepted by all of their major customers, has grown significantly over the last decade, and is now adopted by more than 12,000 sites in 96 countries.
However, in the UK at least, it has not completely replaced retailer audits, and many food manufacturers are still being audited by several customers as well.
One technical manager contacted by FoodManufacture.co.uk said: "It's getting ridiculous. You can spend three quarters of your week dealing with or preparing for audits sometimes. There has been a definite increase over the last five years, particularly of unannounced retailer audits."
Another technical manager said he could “not remember the last time a retailer technical manager asked me about a non-conformance from a BRC audit”.
He added: “Let's be absolutely honest. The retailers have no interest in the BRC standard as it is just not of the level they require. They are not interested and do not see it as adding value. Retailers have had to draw up their own standards because the BRC wasn't delivering what they wanted.
“Look at M&S. They never valued it from day one and never will because it does not meet their stringent requirements. My prediction is that given time BRC will disappear unless it reinvents itself.”
Some supermarkets were also becoming adept at using their audits to gain leverage in commercial discussions with suppliers, he claimed. “There have been several instances where a retailer has had a visit from a supplier to discuss price increases. And the next day they get an unannounced audit from that customer, which surprise surprise, picks up a major issue….”
As for the BRC standard, most technical managers contacted by FoodManufacture.co.uk said the biggest issue was not the standard per se, but the rigour and consistency of the auditing process.
One interim manager said: “We had our BRC audit last week and got an A grade. We were audited to the book but in my view the auditor missed lots of things that a Marks & Spencer PPC or Tesco PIU audit would have ripped us apart on.
“If the BRC is to gain respect again in the industry then it has to address the quality of the auditors and consistency of approach before anything else. If they can do this then things should fall into place. If they don't change then it continues as a tick box exercise.”
Another added: “The BRC audits do not reach the real areas of problems to sites such as foreign body control, microbiological issues, hygiene standards and customer complaints. These are the focus areas I am seeing from many customer audits now.”
Some of the variation could be addressed through better auditor training, added one technical director, but it could also be tackled by making the standard itself clearer, so that fewer things were left to interpretation by the individual auditors.
Speaking to FoodManufacture.co.uk earlier this year, BRC director of Global Standards Dr Geoff Spriegel said consistent auditing and training were critical in maintaining the credibility of any standard.
“The point is not to compete on the content of standards, but in the framework for ensuring compliance with them through consistent auditing and training.
“We've put a lot of effort into working with certification bodies on key performance indicators and training to ensure everyone has confidence in the way BRC standards are audited."
It was too early to say what v6 of the BRC standard - due out for consultation early next year - would look like, said BRC senior technical services manager David Brackston.
But his instinct was that there would not be any significant changes. The focus would most likely be on the “protocols by which the standard is audited and managed”, he predicted.
“We’ve not even started the rewrite yet, but my gut feeling is that the standard is not a million miles away from where it needs to be.”
The BRC plans to consult on a draft of v6 early next year and will publish the revised version in summer/autumn 2011, he said. It will then be effective for audits from early 2012.