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The draft of BRC Issue 8 required our food safety consultants to be approved, as a service provider.  Although Issue 8 took it out again, it’s still a worthwhile exercise, so let’s look at what that means…

food safety consultant

The draft clause 3.5.3.1 said…

“There shall be a documented procedure for the approval and monitoring of suppliers of services. Such services should include:

  • food safety consultants.”

An additional element has also been added to the clause that says…

“This approval and monitoring process shall be risk-based and shall take into consideration:

  • risk to the safety and quality of products

  • compliance with any specific legal requirements

  • potential risks to the security of the product (i.e. risks identified in the vulnerability and food defence assessments).”

If you think about it, your food safety consultant is a high-risk service provider.  You employ them to help you to do things right and meet the standards, so if they’re not good at it, the consequences can be devastating. I’ve had quite a few personal experiences lately, where clients have come to us to help them, because their current or previous food safety consultant hasn’t provided them with the service they need.

Finding a really good food safety consultant isn’t easy.  Firstly, there aren’t many of them out there and secondly, if you’re employing one – you are doing it, because you need their specialist expertise.  How are you meant to know if they are good at what they do?

There are food safety consultants out there that will get you through an audit, because they’re experts in getting through an audit and ‘talking the talk’. Which is fine, but that doesn’t mean that your systems are robust and really do, what they say on the tin. BRC standards are there to protect us, not to just pass an audit. So, how do you find a good consultant and what do you look for when approving them?  Here are a few things you should look for.

Things to look for when hiring a food safety consultant…

Qualifications

  • This seems obvious, but there are a few things you need to look for, that make all the difference.  A consultant should be an expert in their field.   This means they should have the very best qualifications in their field.
  • A food safety consultant should have HACCP Level 4 and also Food Safety Level 4.  Level 3 isn’t good enough. And, this is important – they should have done this recently!  Standards have changed massively in just the last few years, so doing a qualification in the 1990’s doesn’t really cut it anymore.
  • Also, don’t accept certificates of attendance.  You need a certificate that proves that they completed and passed a test.  Attending a course doesn’t make you qualified.
  • Those that are really good at what they do, won’t need to have a recent qualification, as they practise it every day, but the problem is – you won’t be able to assess their ability, so if in doubt you really need to go with a qualification.
  • They should also have a qualification in the standard that they are going to help you with.  So, if you’re working to BRC, then they should have a BRC qualification.  Preferably the full 5-day course.  If you’re working to food, then they must have the food BRC certificate.  As storage and distribution and packaging standards are a spin off from food, they should either have the food certificate OR the specific BRC certificate.

References

  • Ask for references.  Any good consultant will have lots of clients that are happy to give you a reference. If they don’t then there’s something wrong.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for references and make sure you follow-up on them.

Availability

  • Beware if they’re readily available.
  • I know when you need something, you tend to need it now.  It’s normal.  But be aware, if you call a consultant and they are free to see you straight away, this isn’t always a good sign.
  • If they’re good, then they will be busy.

Too good to be true?

  • When it sounds too good to be true – it usually is!
  • Employing the services of a food safety consultant is a two-way exercise; a partnership.  They bring their expertise, but you still need to get involved.  You need to get involved in setting up the systems, because you need to make sure they happen every day, if they’re going to work properly.
  • If a consultant says to you, that they can do it all for you and get you through the audit (without you having to do much or even be there), then this is a big no, no.
  • Your consultant needs someone to work with while they’re at site.  Don’t leave them on their own, you need to be with them – to learn from them.

Evidence

  • Ask for evidence.
  • Ask them to show you a piece of their work.  A good consultant will write procedures which look professional, don’t contain spelling or grammar mistakes and – this is really important – you should be able to pick a procedure up, read it and understand it.  If when you’re read it, you still don’t know what you need to do, well – then it’s not that good, is it?

Contract/Agreement

  • Ask for a contract or agreement in writing.
  • Now, with Issue 8, you need to have a formal agreement with your consultant.  It needs to detail what they’re going to do for you as a minimum.

Performance

  • If you carry out performance reviews with your full-time employees, why not do this with your consultant?  It’s a great opportunity if you do it each year, to establish what you want to work on in the next year and review if you achieved what you set out to do last year.

The role of Food Safety Consultant is crucial to the food safety success of your business, it needs careful thought and I hope I’ve given you some pointers on what to think about. If you have anything else you can add, that will help everyone to make sure that they pick the right consultant, we’d love to hear what you think – just add your comments to the reply box below.

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9 Comments

  • Hi Kassy, as always an excellent overview looking at something that’s often overlooked or not considered.

    One thing I would point out though is that actually you can’t retake your regulated qualufications, it’s not allowed under Ofqual rules (I know some slip through the net, but your not supposed to do it). Also, there aren’t accredited refreshers available for these quals currently.
    I would suggest having a certificate from the 1990s is fine, as long as the consultant can demonstrate suitable CPD. It seems a shame to exclude good quality, highly qualified people who probably have a wealth of experience if they have kept abreast of changes through CPD.

    I’d also add to your list if your using your consultant as a trainer to ensure they can train effectively and cHeck they actually have a training qualification.

    Thanks for keeping us up to date with these blogs.

    • Kassy Marsh says:

      I thanks for this, really good points! I agree about the 1990s certificate, but it’s how at site you know whether they are competent in this situation, I’d be keen to hear your thoughts on what CPD we should look for?

      • Kassy Marsh says:

        Just to let everyone know – we’ve been looking into the point about Ofqual not allowing you to re-take your regulated qualifications. Turns out this was once a requirement, but is no longer an issue. So, you can retake your qualifications.

  • Kassy

    Very good and detailed summary, I understand your comment about 1990s certificates but have to agree with Judith that sometimes refresher training is not available and CPD is sometimes difficult to prove.

    I am busy training today but will add some thoughts later this evening.

  • You can also check on the IFST register to see if they are an IFST registered auditor and mentor, or an IFST food safety manager. This means that they would have to submit evidence of CPD and relevent work experience to IFST to be assessed every year.

    I have done several SALSA audits where the food business has employed external consultants only to find that the consultants have charged them a fortune and not provided them with the right advice. For SALSA, we always recommend a SALSA approved mentor and we see a big difference in performance between food companies using a SALSA mentor vs a non-SALSA mentor.

    As an auditor, one thing I hate to see is an ‘off the shelf’ HACCP plan, where the consultant has written the HACCP plan without the involvement of the food business. This is quite common with smaller food businesses. I have seen HACCP plans written by one particular consultancy company which are pretty much the same other than the name of the food business as the header! And the references are all out of date!

    I would also recommend that if you are going to use a consultant to do your food safety or HACCP training, they are aligned to a particular awarding body such as Highfield. That way the courses and the trainer’s performance are monitored and regulated. You can also ask them to provide you with their pass rate statistics.

    I totally agree with your point about availability. As well as auditing and training, I do Microbiology Consultancy and I am booked up until October 😉

    • Kassy Marsh says:

      Hi Marissa,

      The IFST register is a good idea. Your comment about SALSA is true, as SALSA will ensure that the standard of the consultant is good. However, I would caution that it’s not the only option, the key is to make sure that your consultant is good at what they do. And, there are lots of good ones out there – you just need to find them!

      It’s good to hear you’re in demand, that’s because you’re good at what you do! 🙂

  • Hi Kassy
    As a training consultant with a few years experience, I would welcome BRC requiring that consultants be approved and risk assessed along with other suppliers. My experience shows that there are many good consultants out there but there are also some who are not so good, and others that fall further short of what is acceptable, my experience is with training especially Food Safety and HACCP more than other areas of compliance.
    The speed of change of technology, scientific and commercial understanding and expectation of authorities, consumers and industry poses a real challenge to all professionals across sectors related to the food industry.
    I would wholeheartedly agree with your comment that level 3 qualifications do not “cut the mustard” as an acceptable benchmark for trainers and consultants alike, when the awarding bodies moved the goalposts some years ago many existing training professionals objected, however our protestations fell on deaf ears. The tables seem to have turned now for some customers who are demanding Level 4 again, however I could name a large retailer who accepts auditors with level 3?!?
    Demonstrating CPD is not always easy, as an independent company attending CPD events organised by HQ, RSPH or CIEH often clashes with scheduled training dates, my Advanced Food Hygiene certificate dates back to the late 90’s, my partners the early 90’s, neither of us have done a refresher, we could book a place on a course and re-take the qualification to refresh but it is likely that the tutor running the course would be less experienced than we are, asking the question would we learn a great deal?
    I would recommend that companies ask their consultants to demonstrate the extent of training activity, my partner and I run 4-6 Level 4 Food Safety courses each year, I run 2-3 Level 4 HACCP courses and my partner runs 2-3 Level 4 Nutrition courses, also we run many Level 3 courses in Food Safety, HACCP, Nutrition and Auditing programmes. Whilst this does not prove competence in itself, references from satisfied customers (many of whom are senior technical managers, head chefs, production mangers etc.) would help to confirm recency and competence. I have often offered to provide references but in 25 years have only been asked to do so on a couple of occasions.
    We also keep ourselves up to date by research, webinars, text references etc. These however are difficult to demonstrate.
    I would also recommend speaking to and meeting consultants face to face, glossy websites and brochures can be impressive, but are they backed up by knowledge, experience and skill? As you said some “talk a good game”.
    Another point is that quality of supply has a cost attached, the food industry has done itself few favours in trying to cut the cost of professional services, we live in and age where we are all cost focussed but normally cheap is not good, there is and old business saying which I am sure you will have heard before – “If you think professionals are expensive try using amateurs”
    Finally, I have had 4 enquiries in the last month from small and large companies alike wanting BRC consultancy support, myself and my partner are trainers, whilst we could advise on systems, that is not our forté, and we are reluctant to take on work outside of our specialism. You mentioned that good consultants are hard to find, where would be the best place to find professional service?
    I hope that my input may provide some useful information.
    Kind regards – Steve

    • Kassy Marsh says:

      Hi Steve,
      Thanks for your comment, you’ve made some really good points. And, I would agree, the advice I’ve offered to approve a consultant, doesn’t really map to a trainer. You’ve made me think though, although BRC have said that we should be approving consultants, it would be a good idea to widen that to trainers as well.
      With regard to good consultancy, we would be happy to help in this area, we have a team of amazing consultants – that do cut the mustard!
      Thanks
      Kassy

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