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