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Food certifications:
what they are and what they are for

Interview with Donata Sabbatini, Group Regulatory and Quality Assurance Manager

Interview with Donata Sabbatini, Group Regulatory and Quality Assurance Manager

Food certifications are certificates issued by certification bodies after an assessment of compliance with the regulations of the standards concerning food safety, quality, and legality. Usually, companies that adhere to certification standards do so voluntarily, to certify that the food they process has been produced in a manner that complies with certain requirements.

To get a better understanding of how the complex world of food certification works, and to learn more about those most important for the companies of our Group, we spoke to Donata Sabbatini, the Group Regulatory and Quality Assurance Manager.  

Which are the most frequently requested voluntary certifications?

Amongst the voluntary certifications, the most common in the field of food safety are the BRC- British Retail Consortium, a standard required to enter the UK market, the IFS- international Food Standard, shared between the French and German large-scale retail trade agri-food supply chain (GDO), and the FSSC 22000-Food Safety System Certification, an international  food certification standard, which also incorporates  the requirements of some ISO standards for food production and packaging.

The apparent seriousness and frequency with which unpleasant food safety incidents occur globally, has undoubtedly tested consumer confidence in the food supply chain. By acknowledging the alarms raised in several countries, an international group of retailers created the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) with the basic idea of “Everywhere, Safe Food for All Consumers.”

These certifications are part of the GFSI circuit and although they have different approaches, they all contribute to ensuring that a company guarantees consistent high standards of food safety.  

In addition to these, as a quality system approach, I would add ISO9001, which regulates all company procedures, providing an expanded vision of how all activities must be managed, and dictating rules on the standardisation of the procedures.  

How important is it for the companies of the Group Casa Optima to have these and other certifications? 

It’s essential to demonstrate to the market the commitment to quality standardisation and food safety, but also because certain certifications have now become fundamental for companies that want to approach international markets or large-scale retail trade. Having a certification means providing a presentation card and certifying that you comply with certain requirements. Especially in foreign trade, such as with countries like Arabia, China, the USA, or Australia, it is difficult to gain the trust of the markets without possessing at least one standard of certification.  

Which are the most important certifications for food export? 

To access international markets, particularly in some countries, it is necessary to align oneself with specific food safety plans, for example, certifications linked with rules deriving from religion: the Halal certification meets the Islamic ethnical and sanitary standards, whilst Kosher certification guarantees that the rules laid down by the Jewish religion have been followed. Additionally, product quality certifications can be obtained to certify the specific features of the food or the methods of production, such as the PDO and PGI indications.

To these we can add, particularly in Italy, the AIC certification, which attests the absence of gluten, and the Vegan Ok certification, which guarantees the absence of ingredients of animal origin.

Likewise, to sell in America, there are specific standards that must be met both in terms of food safety and food defence, to prevent acts of sabotage, which arose especially after the attack of the 11th of September. 

Not to mention all the issues related to customs and export codes, which are the disadvantages and in some cases advantages of all commercial transactions towards certain countries which can enjoy tax relief if they comply with certain rules.  

In the Casa Optima team, who deals with this aspect? Which are the major difficulties that you encounter? 

My role is to guide and give guidelines to the production plants concerning food safety schemes and to constantly monitor the objectives and results. Together with the Factory Quality, we ensure compliance with the requirements with the support of the factory managers.

The Regulatory department of the Casa Optima Group takes care of all product certifications and export related issues. They also support the sales staff in the increasingly challenging demands that customers place on us. With perseverance, updating, precision and problem-solving skills, they promote business and at the same time, draw the line where necessary.

The greatest difficulty, given the wide range of references, is the correct interpretation of European standards in the various countries outside Europe.

Additionally, the certifications must be renewed every year with audits by the control bodies, and this involves new controls and continuous updates, with the inclusion of all new products. This procedure also obviously has an impact on production because both Halal and Kosher require process and production management requirements that must comply with specific rules. 

In addition to all the certifications you have mentioned, are you working to obtain new ones? 

We never stop! We work together as a team to make sure that everything is done to the best of our ability and to ensure that the Group never stops and that it constantly has new opportunities.  

Given the pioneering nature that characterizes us, we are always ready to gather new ideas, attentive to the needs of the market. The latest product certifications are those of the RAINFOREST ALLIANCE to produce a cocoa and hazelnut variegate that allows the use of raw materials that comply with specific ethnical and environmental sustainability requirements, and a certification linked to the PGI Annurca apple from Southern Italy.

The trend of having to adhere to third-party audit schemes is also spreading (i.e. a professional, appointed by an independent and accredited body, who carries out auditing activities in organisations that wish to certify their quality, environmental, safety system, or monitor a management system already certified by accredited external bodies) in order to be able to export, and despite our certification schemes, further assessment is required by these third-party  bodies hired by the Ministries of foreign countries, for example, in recent years, Uganda an Iraq.

The challenge for the future in the field of food safety, will be to keep up-to-date and to comply with what the new revisions of the certification standards will demand of us.  

As you may have guessed, the food safety standards every year raise the level of requirements: they require the involvement  of all company functions, starting with management, they promote assessment and continuous improvement of the food safety management system, demonstrate the company’s commitment to this field, generating the trust of the customer, they improve employee involvement, raising awareness of food risks and promoting food safety.

Consequently, I am proud to underline that without the great teamwork of Regulatory and all other corporate functions involved in each plant (Quality, Production, Plant Management, to name but a few) it would not be possible to achieve these important certification results.