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Food safety questions for your co-packer

The natural foods industry is bursting with new product concepts, from cutting-edge ingredients and unique delivery forms, to exotic flavors and creative packaging. Many of these products are developed by entrepreneurs and start-up companies who need the support of co-packers and contract manufacturers to bring their ideas to market. When it comes to food safety, these innovators may be unsure what to look for or what questions to ask. Below are some key safety considerations when evaluating current and potential co-manufacturers.

Sanitation standards and certifications

  • During the plant visit, request to meet with those who oversee quality assurance and food safety.
  • Ask if they have regular third-party audits, who performs the audits, and the scores received. Review current good manufacturing practices (CGMPs), hazard analysis critical control points (HACCP) plan, compliance with the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), their allergen control program, and capabilities to handle a recall.
  • If you desire organic certification, request which agent(s) have certified the facility. Check on kosher or halal certifications, which also convey quality and safety, as well as if they follow Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) certification requirements.
  • Look at the website for their food safety culture or ask for a copy of their quality and food safety policies.
  • Check if they have an in-house lab for testing or if they send testing samples to outside labs. Production timing could be affected awaiting lab test results. Discuss their testing procedures and any specific tests/protocols you require.

Facilities, inventory and distribution practices

  • FSMA requires controls to prevent allergen cross-contact, so look for allergen management throughout the facility. Dedicated lines and warehouse space prohibit cross-contamination, as well as signage or marked-off areas for finished goods storage. Identifying special areas with different-colored tools and employee uniforms is also favorable. Likewise, employee safety measures such as clear traffic paths and fire protection systems are good practices.
  • Determine if the facility’s location is close enough for impromptu visits. Request to be onsite during a production run, as well as possibly during line cleaning/sanitation. Look for safety and hygiene signage for employees and ask them to point out their pest control measures within and outside the facility. During line cleaning, observe where parts and equipment are placed – on a separate, sanitary table versus other areas which could promote contamination.

General recommendations

  • Ask for referrals for your potential co-manufacturer and follow up with them. If the company can’t provide its customers due to non-disclosure agreements, check with your industry contacts about the company’s strengths, weaknesses, and reliability.
  • Buy and try some of the products the company currently manufactures to determine if they meet the standards of your brand and product positioning.
  • Be sure to sign a non-disclosure agreement with the company before providing any proprietary information.

FSMA’s Preventive Controls for Human Food final rule states that the co-packers are ultimately responsible for compliance. However, brand owners should make sure their co-packer is satisfying the regulations of the final rule. The Specialty Food Association has an article covering this in more detail.

Co-packers and contract manufacturers are experts at what they do. Keep in mind you are working with them so you can devote more of your time, money and resources to build your sales and brand. Ensuring you partner with a manufacturer who is just as committed to your product and brand integrity as you are is always a wise investment.

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