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What is the purpose of hazard significance in HACCP?

Assessing the significance of your hazards in your HACCP plan is key, as it allows you to reduce the number of hazards that go though the decision tree. I’ve seen many HACCP plans where they have spent lots of time assessing the significance of the hazards, and then, put all the hazards through the decision tree anyway. There’s got to be a point to assessing significance, otherwise you might as well not have bothered.

So what do we mean by significance?

A significant hazard is one where the risk assessment has deemed it to be of a significant food safety risk to the consumer. Therefore by pulling the significant risks out, by using risk assessment, we are highlighting the hazards that we really need to focus on to ensure food safety.

How do we determine significance?

There are two main factors when assessing significance – severity (sometimes called impact) and likelihood.

For severity we are looking at what would be the worst case impact of the food safety issue if someone were to eat the product.

There are a couple of key points here, that when auditing I see people trip up on.

  1. HACCP is all about food safety, so we are not assessing any hazards that do not actually cause harm. So we shouldn’t have any severities that are things like upset, or quality complaint – as neither of these would cause harm.
  2. The severity assessments must be consistent throughout your HACCP plan. So many times, I’ve seen glass for example assessed as medium in one part of the HACCP plan and then as high in another. The impact of a consumer eating a hard sharp piece of glass would be the same, so make sure you’re consistent.

For likelihood, we are looking at the likelihood of that hazard occurring at that particular process step.

  • Make sure you’re assessing the likelihood of it happening at that process step, don’t fall into the trap of assessing what’s going to happen at a later step.
  • Also, make sure that you assess the likelihood of the hazard affecting the finished dispatched product, rather than the likelihood of it affecting it is at that step.

For example, if you were assessing the likelihood of brittle plastic from a sensor over open product – you may say that the likelihood of it breaking is high – so the result you would get is high. However, you have controls in place which ensure that all brittle plastic over open product is checked every day after production, so it would be picked up that there is a broken piece, the product would be quarantined and so, the product would not go out to the consumer.  If you assess the brittle plastic again, you may say ‘the likelihood of the sensor breaking is high, however the likelihood of the contaminated product being dispatched is low, as there are controls in place to check the sensor and the product would be quarantined.’  Therefore the result would be low.

In my opinion it is a really good idea to actually document how you got to the result for likelihood, it means that anyone at any time can go back to it and understand why you’ve made that decision for likelihood. An auditor cannot argue with you if you’ve documented a solid decision.

Definitions, definitions, definitions!

It’s so important that decide up front how you are going to assess the severity and likelihood of the hazards. To do this you need to document definitions for each level of severity and likelihood.

Are you going to use a scale of low, medium and high? Or are you going to use a numbered scale? Either way, write down what a low severity would be, a medium severity and a high severity. Do the same for likelihood. It’s not an easy task to do, but it will give you so much clarity when assessing the hazards and make sure your assessment is consistent.

Tip – I’d recommend if you’re going to use a numbered scale, that you stick to a scale of 1 to 3, rather than a scale of 1 to 5. A scale of 1 to 5, in my opinion makes it more complicated than it needs to be and it tends to mean your definitions of each number become more blurred – which you don’t want – you want the right result to be obvious (and not ambiguous).

So what is significant?

Now you’ve got your definitions for your scales of severity and likelihood, you need to decide what is significant.

  1. If you’ve used a numbered scale, are you going to add them together or multiply them? Once you have, what score will be deemed significant?
  2. If you’ve used a low, medium and high scale, you need to come up with a method of determining which combinations of low, medium and high will be significant.

Make sure you document the result of your significance assessment.

  • Hazards that are not significant, their assessment should stop there.
  • Hazards that are significant, will then go through the decision tree.

To help you I’ve put together a template that you can use to document your significance assessment. I’ve provided the method, you just need to decide and fill in your scale and definitions, and how you want to determine significance. To get your free template, just click the button below.

Get my FREE procedure template

In the next post I’m going to go through using the codex decision tree, specifically making sure you’re using the most modern version, because the old one can really trip you up and cause you non-conformance if you’re not careful.

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