Accreditation and certification are terms that are often used incorrectly. Inevitably, in an industry full of auditable certification programmes, standards, regulations, and requirements, there is extensive technical jargon. To help you, in GFSI's Benchmarking Requirements, you will find a comprehensive glossary of terms.

A good starting point is to make sure that you understand the following definitions:

  • Accreditation: A process by which an authoritative body gives formal recognition of the competence of a certification body to provide certification services against an international standard.
  • Certification: a process by which accredited certification bodies, based on an audit, provide written assurance that food safety requirements and management systems and their implementation conformed to requirements.

In March 2011, GFSI published a White Paper titled “Enhancing food safety through third party certification” that is available for download here. Readers will find a comprehensive overview of the certification process.

Accreditation: How it works

The Certification Body must have systems in place to ensure the capability of all their staff. In particular they need to demonstrate that their auditors are competent. To confirm that such systems are in place, the Accreditation Body uses one of two standards from the International Standards Organisation (ISO): ISO/IEC Guide 65 or ISO/IEC 17021.

The two standards contain similar requirements for how a certification body must operate. They both address issues of preventing conflict of interest, managing customer information, properly qualifying personnel, auditor calibration, and many other aspects involved with the certification process.

There is a technical difference between these two approaches which are explained in the White Paper. It concerns the difference between management systems and product systems.

They are helped to follow the rules and apply the standards to affirm consistent delivery of certification programmes by the International Accreditation Forum (IAF), their global association. Working together, they have developed a mechanism to implement this consistency which is the IAF Multilateral Recognition Arrangement. 

Certification: How it works

There is an initial administration process following the selection of a Certification Body. This involves the completion of application documents and becomes the basis of the contract. It helps to calculate audit duration and the assignment of the right auditor.

The audit must be scheduled on a date that is within a peak production period.

The audit determines how well a facility identifies and implements food safety controls to comply with the requirements of the standard.

Certification audits are always non-consultative. This means the auditor is not allowed to instruct or advise.

The auditor reviews HACCP plans, procedures, policies, physical conditions and records and observes the implementation of the plans in the factory.

Any non-conformances observed are documented and at the conclusion of the audit the factory will be informed.

A formal report is prepared to a format laid down by the certification programme. To achieve certification, the food business is required to correct all non-conformances and to prevent their recurrence. Each certification programme has its own timeline requirements for these closures.

The Certification Body reviews the evidence submitted and decides whether to accept or request a resubmission. In some cases, which may be prescribed by the certification programme, a further site visit may be required to verify closure.

The final decision on certification is not with the auditor but with an individual within the Certification Body who was not involved with the audit or the factory.

Annual recertification is required. The rules may vary according to the certification programme but typically timing will be close to the date of the initial certification audit.


In recent years third party food safety audits have come under critical scrutiny from the mainstream media. Sites with reportedly excellent ratings by these independent auditors have been linked to outbreaks associated with serious illness and death, and have subsequently been closed down by regulators. In most reported cases to date, these instances were one-to-one arrangements between suppliers and independent non-accredited audit agencies, without any oversight or recognition.

Accredited certification does not deliver a guarantee of food safety nor prevent food safety incidents. It provides a proven framework of checks and balances that significantly improves the rigour of the audit process and reduces the risk of food safety failures.

Food businesses should not rely solely on third party audits to provide evidence of their food safety compliance, they are a tool to be used in a risk-based strategy for food safety management. However, accredited third-party certification audits, if used correctly, are worthwhile tools for any food business seeking to implement and maintain behaviours and practices within their facilities.