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How to Pass Quality Assurance and Get Your Product Into Major Retailers
 
Quality Assurance Post Image.png

It’s More Than Winning Over the Buyers

What is Quality Assurance?

At a food retailer, the QA team is responsible for maintaining the quality and safety of products sold by that retailer. In the case of a supermarket, this would include products sourced from suppliers, products made through contracted manufacturers, and even ready-to-eat food prepared at the onsite deli. The QA Team conducts quality inspections, handles food recalls, and conducts supplier verification.

The Quality Assurance team may be the reason your food product doesn't make it into major retailers and distribution chains. This would happen if you are unable to prove that you are following industry-standard practices. For this reason, it's important to understand what your purchaser's QA Team is looking for and how to work with them so that you can get your product onto retailer shelves and grow your sales.

Even after a major buyer has pledged to place an order, there’s another hurdle before you can start selling your products to a new retailer: The Quality Assurance (QA) Team.

The QA team’s job is to uphold quality standards and protect the company’s reputation. They evaluate hundreds of prospective (and current) suppliers to determine whether their products meet the company’s quality and safety standards.

They are the gatekeeper for all new products and if the product doesn’t pass quality assurance, then the retailer won’t risk carrying that product.

Don’t let this frighten you. The QA team has no incentive to arbitrarily reject new suppliers and they are often willing to work with new suppliers to help them pass QA and get their products onboard.

Before we go into strategies for working with QA teams, let’s review how the process typically works.

How QA Teams Approve Suppliers

After the buying team expresses interest carrying a new product, the QA team steps in to conduct some due diligence about the supplier.

The QA team will typically email the prospective supplier requesting information, such as a third party audit result or records showing your company’s food safety practices.

After, there may be some back-and-forth with your contact on the QA team. This depends on your company’s ability to provide the requested documents and demonstrate the safety and quality of your product.

Finally, the QA team will either give your products a “pass” or they will delay the company’s purchase of your products until you can achieve specific requirements.

With this in mind, having a positive relationship with your a prospective buyer’s QA team can mean the difference between winning a huge account or not. To stay in their good graces, consider the following tips:

  1. Before asking a question or requesting a piece of material from the QA team, check and see if it’s available on the company’s supplier facing website.

  2. Avoid asking them to explain food safety concepts or regulation to you. Instead, look it up on FDAreader.com or, if we’ve failed you, then google it.

  3. Fill out all forms and documents as completely as possible and provide all requested documents.

  4. Collate your submissions a minimum number of attachments and present it in the most straightforward possible manner. Your QA contact reviews thousands of these documents per month and will appreciate your efforts towards clarity.

  5. Be honest. The QA team doesn’t demand perfect manufacturing programs as a prerequisite for approval and they appreciate when suppliers are honest about their process.

What the Quality Assurance Team is Looking For

QA teams want a supplier who presents them with a straightforward case about “why our product’s safety and quality is not worth worrying about.”

The most compelling evidence is a third party audit result— which reads like a physical exam for your company’s food safety practices. In the absence of that, a thoughtfully compiled and organized set of food safety policies and records can signal that your business is serious about food safety. Ultimately, the QA team will describe their needs — and it’s important to listen. Dozens of times, I’ve been able to get my clients’ products into new retailers despite their inability to meet the “official” supplier qualifications. All I did was follow the instructions we were given, provide the documents that we were able to come up with, and present it in an easy-to-read format.

Honesty is the Answer (Even When the Truth is Imperfect)

When confronted with a shortcoming in my clients’ food safety practices I have found that honesty is the answer. Specifically, I candidly explain the current state of that food safety issue and how the supplier is working to fix it. The following anecdote from my consulting career illustrates how this has worked in my favor:

One time, a distributor hired me to fix some trouble they were having with a nationwide supermarket chain. The supermarket had already been selling the distributor’s product for almost a year but the distributor was ignoring all of QA team’s emails. Eventually, the supermarket’s buying team threatened to halt all business with the distributor unless they responded to the QA team’s requests, and so the distributor hired me as a consultant to sort it all out. I quickly put together a basic food safety plan— a set documents showing how the distributor managed food safety across their operation— and sent it off to the supermarket’s QA team.  

The QA manager who was reviewing the documents noticed a problem and called me. He explained that, while the warehouse operation looked safe enough, the distributor didn’t have any evidence that the actual foods they were buying were safely manufactured. In other words, he pointed out that the distributor hadn’t done any supplier verification. He was 100% right and this could have been a deal breaker for working with the distributor.

I took a deep breath and told him the truth— that the distributor hadn’t verified the safety of any of the foods in their catalog prior to hiring me that week. I had just begun sending out requests to the distributor’s suppliers a few days before. So far only one supplier of ninety had responded. I sent the QA manager an overview of how I was beginning to implement a supplier verification program on behalf of the distributor. I also shared the records showing we had collected information from and approved one supplier. Then I waited.

To my surprise, the QA manager was grateful for the honesty and he approved the distributor to continue supplying the supermarket. We were able to organize a timeline by which the distributor would verify all of their suppliers over the course of several months and communicate this to the supermarket.

In my experience, displaying honesty— even about imperfections in my client’s food safety program— actually instilled a greater confidence in the program overall. QA teams are constantly being lied to (I’m sure they don’t like it) and they are quick to acknowledge that even the best suppliers have imperfect programs.

So how should you approach working with a new purchaser and their QA team?

  • Figure out exactly what they want and don’t waste their time

  • Be honest about where you can and and can’t meet their expectations

  • Present your documents in an organized fashion.


Understanding Date Labels
Forget everything you think you know about expiration dates.

Forget everything you think you know about expiration dates.

What You Need to Know:

  • Date labels have nothing to do with product safety — they indicate quality.

  • A date label should show the last date of expected peak quality.

  • The recommended wording for is “Best if Used By”

  • The FDA doesn’t require a date label on any food products except infant formula.


Introduction: 

The American food consumer is misreading date-labels and mistakenly throwing out $32 billion dollars worth of food because of it. The FDA is trying to minimize food waste and so they are providing specific guidance to manufacturers about how to write date labels and guidance to consumers about how to interpret them properly.


How to Read a Date Label

What does a date label mean? 

A date label on a food should indicate the last date where the food maintains peak quality and flavor. Date labels are meant to reflect quality not food safety.

A Best-if-Used-By Date “indicates to the consumer that the product may not taste or perform as expected but is safe to be used or consumed”

Wording is inconsistent and confusing to consumers

Wording is inconsistent and confusing to consumers

Can I eat a food after the “expiration date”?

Yes! This is because it’s not an expiration date. A food which doesn’t show signs of spoilage after the specified date can still be eaten. 

Remember that food manufacturers have an incentive for you to only consume products in their “peak quality” because then you will buy their products more often. 

How do I know when a product is unsafe to eat? 

Major food industry groups have endorsed the use of “Use By” to indicate when a product should be discarded for food safety reasons but, as of 2019, the FDA hasn’t taken a stance on this topic.


How to Write a Date-Label

What wording should I use For my Date Label?

The recommended terminology is “Best If Used By”. This indicates that the date is an indicator of quality, not food safety.

The FDA recommends not using words like “sell by” or “expires on” because this obscures the meaning of a date label.

How do I pick a Best-If-Used-By date for my food product? 

Food manufacturers can collect this information by either conducting tests themselves to assess quality. You can do this by storing multiple versions of your product in the recommended storage condition and then tasting them at various time intervals to assess the point when quality begins to decline.

It’s important that you don’t produce, package or store these test-products any differently than you normally would. Finally, your Best-If-Used-By date should pass before any sort of decline in product quality.

You can also enlist a reputable testing lab to conduct testing on your behalf.

Since best-if-used-by dates are an indicator of quality, it’s important that your product is safe for consumption well beyond the date you print on the label.

Do I need to change my packaging If I am not aligned with these Standards?

No. The FDA is trying to minimize confusion to consumers and food waste nationwide. These guidelines won’t be enforced by the FDA — they are simply setting a standard for the industry to adopt.

Should I remove the date label from my product?

You can, but many retailers and some local agencies have their own requirements for printing a “use-by” date of some type. Your best bet is to adopt the FDA-approved wording and print a use-by date that you can stand behind.

Do I need a date label if my product is non-perishable?

Not to satisfy FDA standards (only infant formulas require a “use by” date.) However, large retailers may require a date label on all foods they carry, so it’s worth building the capacity to print date labels, even if you don’t use them at this time.


 
Introduction to Good Manufacturing Processes (GMPs)
This article supports food producers answer the question, “What are GMPs?”

This article supports food producers answer the question, “What are GMPs?”

Introduction to GMPs

Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) are the set of production standards that have been embraced by regulators, retailers and consumers in the food and drug industries. 

GMPs provide a basic assurance that a product was produced under industry-standard conditions. Some of the areas addressed in GMPs include:

  • Building & facility conditions

  • Equipment design and maintenance

  • Employee practices

  • Sanitation conditions

  • Raw ingredient sourcing

  • Maintaining strong production controls

  • Records and reports


There are several sets of GMP standards which have been endorsed by different governments. Fortunately although they are nearly identical. Some versions of GMPs include:

  • CGMP* (food) addresses the production of food for the US.

  • CGMP* (drug) addresses the production of pharmaceutical drugs for the US

  • EU-GMP addresses the production of pharmaceutical drugs for the European Union

  • Guide 104 GMP addresses the production of pharmaceutical drugs for Canada

If you are considering aligning your business with GMPs, adopt the set of standards that reflects where your processing is located and where your product will be sold. If this includes more than one set of GMPs, you will want to make sure your operations are aligned with both. Again, they are nearly identical.

*CGMP stands for “Current Good Manufacturing Practices” and is regulated by the FDA.

Food vs. Drug GMPs

In the United States, the FDA defines two distinct sets of GMP standards — Food and Pharmaceutical (Drug).

Food CGMPs: These describe the “methods, equipment, facilities, and controls for producing processed food.” (FDA, 2004). These are meant to ensure that the food is safe to eat.

Drug CGMPs: These assure “the identity, strength, quality, and purity of drug products by requiring that manufacturers of medications adequately control manufacturing operations”. (FDA, 2018).

The sections below reflect the GMP requirements for food.

Understanding the GMP Certification Process

After a food manufacturer aligns their operations with GMPs, they may consider going through the certification process through a private auditing firm. This is how the certification process typically works:

  1. A manufacturer adopts the GMP standards and makes the required adjustments to align with the standards. Depending on the preexisting practices and conditions, this could take 3-12 months.

  2. The manufacturer chooses a private auditing firm (there are many) to conduct the GMP audit.

  3. The auditing firm conducts the audit, which may include an inspection of the facility and a review of records. 

  4. The manufacturer will correct any areas of non-compliance and, if they achieve a passing score, they will receive a certificate from the auditing firm.

  5. The manufacturer can provide this certificate to prospective buyers as an indication of their alignment with industry standards.

Why You Should Align Your Operations with GMPs

Regardless of whether your business chooses to pursue certification, aligning your operations with GMPs will have the following benefits:

  • Decrease in food safety risk to your customers

  • Lower level of product defects

  • When your buyers conduct supplier verification activities, they will want to want to know that your operations are GMP-aligned — even if you’re not certified


The Benefits of Achieving GMP Certification

  • It will unlock access to the many buyers who require GMP certification from their suppliers.

  • It will satisfy most supplier-verification requirements — meaning less back-and-forth between your team and the companies you sell to.

  • You will have an advantage over competitors who haven’t been certified to this industry standard.

GMP Requirements

For a detailed set of FDA-aligned GMP requirements, see our comprehensive guide to GMPs

Or, you can learn about the individual good manufacturing practices by topic: