British Retail Consortium (BRC) technical director for food, David Brackston spoke to FoodManufacture.co.uk ahead of the BRC’s online publication of its draft of v6 this week, and after the first trial audit using the new standard last Friday.
He said:“We did a lot of consultation last year, gathering feedback that informed our working groups.” These included stakeholders such as the major retailers, food manufacturers, certification bodies and trade associations.
“Generally people are happy with the content of the standard, but it is three years old, so it’s fair to say that allergens, for instance, have now moved right up the agenda, while food safety issues have evolved,” Brackston said.
“We have made a number of changes to the standard, but the key issue is the way it is used and audited against.”
Brackston said one of the key criticisms of v5 was the lack of time spent by auditors on the factory floor, with v6 set to ensure a “more balanced approach in terms of auditing implementation”.
“For instance, cleaning, checking that things done in practice are prioritised above issues such as the documentation,” he said.
Thus the BRC had split the auditing process into two parts, Brackston said, one focusing on auditing factory facilities, the other on office and documentation issues. “We feel this will send a clear message to auditors regarding the priorities for implementation.”
Brackston said the draft also contained more on foreign body control.“For instance, regarding glass breakages in factories, there are more specific clauses on products going into glass jars … we’re drilling down to a greater level of detail.”
Brackston admitted that voluntary unannounced audits that formed part of v5 “didn’t work particularly well”, so new plans to split the audit into two parts meant that the ‘good manufacturing practice’ part of the audit alone would be unannounced, with the fillip of a special A* grade to encourage more food firms to choose this option.
He said this would strengthen the focus on manufacturing practice, while addressing fears amongst food firms that technical managers could be offsite when auditors called, by assessing factory standards in a “more realistic way”.
Responding to criticisms of auditor quality and inconsistency, Brackston said:“There is a danger that all is not done to the standards we hope and expect.” He said v6 would be “more consistent, and inspire greater confidence from the auditors”.
But one technical manager for a large food manufacturer said: “I've never been a great fan [of the BRC standard] and I can't see v6 making any difference going forward,” he said, noting that Tesco’s benchmark PIU standard is 179 pages long, while v5 is much thinner.
He said his firm had introduced internal audits for around six days a year, in addition to customer audits, and that everyone was asking: “How many more bloody audits do we need? Smaller firms might want to shout about accreditation from the rooftops, but when you’re dealing with the bigger boys no-one gives a monkey's about the BRC.
He added that BRC audits were a "total sideshow", and that major food firms worried more about customer audits, which were a vehicle to beat suppliers up on price, he said. Especially during price negotiations where, for instance, Asda always conducted surprise audits. "You can set your watch by them."
“The retailers don't regard the standard as important so why should the industry? It is the same old problem with the BRC, they are not addressing the fundamental issue and that is the inconsistent approach of the auditors.”
The manager said he joined a site in February that received a Red/Red score after a Marks & Spencer (M&S) hygiene audit the month before. “I had made a few changes but not sufficient to have brought about the radical changes necessary. Why then in March did we have a BRC that gave us an A grade with only two minors?
“Quite frankly the audit is a joke, and requires root and branch changes or else it will fall into total disrepute.”
Complements customer audits
Countering criticisms that the BRC standard is not detailed enough, Brackston said it was never meant to replace customer audits, but originated because many retailers recognised similar, non-competitive business areas in areas such as food safety.
“Other areas: price, product development, are obviously competitive, and involve customers visiting factories,” he said. “It’s about food safety and systems, grafted on top of that for any particular customer will be worries or concerns.”
But another technical manager criticised v5 for being “a bit wishy-washy”. “Some of the customer codes of practice are very specific. If something is open to interpretation by the auditor, it can either go in your favour or against you,” she said.
“I’ve been to places [successfully audited to BRC standards by one firm in particular] where I’ve questioned whether the auditor has left his guide dog in reception.”
Through a one-month consultation process, the BRC will now gain industry feedback on its draft version of v6, after which it will review and modify the standard accordingly.
Brackston saidthe BRC will probably publish the new standard in July, then train auditors before rolling it out in January 2012.