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Food safety trends: small businesses do not mean small risk

20 March 2024

If food safety professionals thought life after the pandemic would get easier, the experience of the past three years has proven otherwise.

Having risen some 20% during the Covid years, recall volumes have remained stubbornly high, reaching a ten-year peak in the UK and EU last year and continuing to climb in the US.

The reasons for such a structural shift can be difficult to pinpoint, but there are significant and inter-related global factors at play. Geo-political unrest, energy crises and soaring inflation have all severely disrupted supply chains and, of course, the sector is at the sharp end of climate change as drought, flood and fire risk turn from threat to harsh reality. What’s more, supply chain risk is only one side of the story. There has never been greater scrutiny of where our food comes from, how it’s produced and who by; this, alongside 24/7 access to news, results in much higher visibility across recalls.

These macro-trends are consistent with LRQA’s on-the-ground experience. Our clients are facing an increasing number of issues closer to the source, leading to new challenges and elevated risk levels associated with their tier one suppliers. It’s a highly challenging and complex environment for the on-going production of safe, high-quality food but one factor, in particular, merits closer attention.

Whatever the cause, a key response to supply chain disruption has been to expand sourcing to include more small and medium sized businesses (SMEs), where food safety systems are typically less mature and formal audits less common. Clearly, this dynamic introduces new and higher levels of risk, but when minimum regulatory approvals are insufficient and intensive testing on receipt often impractical, how can food producers best raise the bar?

Where resources allow, companies may opt to audit SMEs themselves against an existing, bespoke brand standard, but there is an alternative. Foundational standards like BRCGS Start! provide basic tools and the structure to demonstrate a minimum level of food safety maturity - but have the added benefit of creating a roadmap for suppliers that can lead to full GFSI compliance.

Either of these routes can work, but with food safety recalls refusing to return to pre-pandemic levels and SMEs becoming more prevalent across supply chains, there is a bigger picture to consider. By partnering with smaller suppliers to move towards a recognised global framework, risk managers can deliver both tangible risk benefits for their business today and play a part in securing the continued integrity of the food industry as a whole tomorrow.