ARCHIVED - Use of Private Certification to Inform Regulatory Risk-Based Oversight: Discussion Document

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Private certification schemes are formal, documented food safety systems that are developed and administered by the private sector.  There is growing momentum, resulting from both public and private interests, for regulators to consider how they may make use of industry's adoption of private certification schemes in support of food safety public policy objectives.  As such, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is exploring how it may enhance its approach to risk-based oversight by assessing industry's use of private certification schemes.  This is consistent with the CFIA Improved Food Inspection Model (IFIM) discussion document, which outlines how the Agency intends to take a more structured approach to improve oversight.

Widespread adoption of private certification schemes by industry presents the Agency with an opportunity to consider possibilities to use private certification information to conduct better planning in the allocation of Agency resources.  While new, relevant, reliable information will enable improved decision-making, the CFIA recognizes that all private certification schemes are not equal, and therefore will assess schemes individually from the perspective of CFIA regulatory requirements.  Beyond individual scheme assessments, the CFIA will further consider what else may be required to establish confidence in the credibility of private certification information. 

While the Agency is considering how it may make use of industry's adoption of private certification schemes, it is important to note that the Agency will retain its regulatory responsibilities and continue to verify compliance with regulatory standards on a risk-basis.  The CFIA does not intend to endorse, recognize or recommend certification to any particular scheme, and therefore individual companies will retain responsibility for choosing a private certification scheme that meets their business needs.

This discussion paper is a first step in generating feedback on the Agency's early thinking on formalizing its approach to leveraging industry's use of private certification schemes, which may also provide a framework for giving companies credit for successfully achieving certification.

It is anticipated that this paper will initiate a dialogue on the use of private certification schemes that will inform the Agency as it moves forward with its modernization and transformation agendas.


Private Certification Schemes vs. Regulatory Standards

Private Certification Schemes

Private certification schemes are formal, documented systems that are developed and administered by the private sector. Private certification schemes prescribe methods to obtain specific objectives and outcomes, and typically involve audits and certification, and in retail oriented schemes, the authorized use of logos that have meaning in the marketplace. Their power comes from being required by buyers as a means of enhancing the buyer's ability to manage suppliers and products for certain prescribed outcomes. Private certification schemes are frequently incorporated into supply chain contracts where they effectively become a contractual commitmentFootnote 1.

Regulatory Standards

Regulatory standards are mandatory criteria established by law or regulation.

In consideration of the use of certification to a private scheme to inform regulatory risk-based oversight, the CFIA has no intention to influence or change regulatory standards, use private schemes to replace Agency regulatory oversight, or outsource Agency inspection work.

Private Certification Schemes Owners and Users

Private Certification Scheme Owners

Individual organizations such as major retail chains may develop private certification schemes to ensure that their suppliers provide products of consistent safety and/or quality.

Private schemes may also be developed collectively by industry organizations. This approach has the advantage of cost-sharing and minimizing the number of individual private certification schemes a sector is required to meet.

There is a wide range of private certification schemes, such as Safe Quality Food (SQF) 1000 and 2000, British Retail Consortium Global Standard for Food Safety, CanadaGAP and the International Food Standard (IFS). In response to the abundance and diversity of certification schemes, retailers and others have engaged in global benchmarking of private certification schemes to contribute to harmonization, enable industry to leverage investments, and minimize redundancyFootnote 2.

Private Certification Scheme Users

Buyers, and especially retailers, are driving industry's adoption of private certification schemes. Companies whose buyers are demanding certification to a private scheme will strive to achieve certification to retain their market share. Where buyers are not demanding certification, some companies may decide to proceed with certification as a means of strengthening their position in the marketplace.

The Expansion of Private Certification Schemes

Private Certification Scheme Drivers: Businesses and Consumers

Market forces provide important incentives that can be expected to continue to drive the use of private certification schemesFootnote 3. It is important to recognize that companies have different motivators for requiring / implementing private certification schemes, which may include:

  • managing food safety hazards;
  • enhancing supply chain management;
  • lowering costs;
  • responding to buyer and consumer demands;
  • enhancing private brands;
  • enabling product differentiation;
  • managing business risks (e.g. reputation risk);
  • addressing regulatory requirements;
  • expanding consumer loyalty, choice, and information; and
  • reducing liability.

Consumer behaviour, aspirations or expectations may add impetus to the use of private certification schemes in their efforts to:

  • buy safe food;
  • buy nutritious food; and
  • find specific food quality attributes such as fairly traded or environmentally sustainable food productsFootnote 1.

Certification - An Input to Enable Improved Risk-based Oversight

Private certification schemes can play a role in helping to achieve regulatory objectives, provided they are effective, credible and aligned with public policy objectives Footnote 3, Footnote 4. While there is no intent to replace regulatory oversight, and while the CFIA will retain its regulatory responsibilities, it is increasingly recognized that certification to private schemes has potential to be used as a factor within a risk-based model allocating regulatory resources.

Such a framework may also provide a means of "giving credit" to companies who have successfully achieved certification.

Key components of the assessment process include:

  1. Scheme Assessment: The private certification scheme must be assessed to determine to what level federal legislated food safety requirements are met, in this case, the Safe Food for Canadians Act (SFCA) and associated regulatory requirements.
  2. Certifying Body Competency: The certifying body must be accredited to international accreditation standards, and meet any other criteria the CFIA may identify to establish competency.
  3. Company Certification: The company must successfully achieve certification and maintain certification to the private scheme.

By developing an assessment framework to establish confidence around the components described above, the Agency could then consider use of this information as part of its risk oversight model. The assessment process to be developed will be:

  1. Transparent: The assessment process and criteria will be published on the CFIA web site.
  2. Non-Binary: The assessment process will account for the fact that certification schemes may partially – or fully, meet some – or all, CFIA criteria. In other words, assessment outcomes are anticipated to result in varying degrees of alignment against CFIA regulatory requirements. This enables the CFIA to use as much additional relevant data as possible to inform its decision making.
  3. Continuous: It is recognized that there will be a need for continued information sharing between certification bodies and CFIA to update certification data as necessary.

Recognizing the demands on suppliers in terms of compliance with regulatory requirements as well as conformance to market requirements (i.e. private certification schemes), this initiative also sets the groundwork for future strategic thinking around overlapping public and private requirements, and whether there may be potential opportunities to minimize redundancies and reduce the burden on businesses, while upholding food safety outcomes.

Implementation Considerations

Scheme Submission

Two approaches have been identified to select private certification schemes for assessment.

  1. Voluntary Submission by Scheme Owners. Proprietors of private certification schemes may voluntarily submit their scheme for regulator assessment, as inclusion in this initiative may enhance the value of certification for their clients through, for example, potential reduction in inspection burden. Schemes would be required to meet established criteria to be eligible for submission, and assessments would be conducted on a first come first served basis.
  2. CFIA Selection of Schemes. Based on established criteria, CFIA could select private certification schemes for assessment.

These two approaches are not mutually exclusive. Reviews of private certification schemes submitted and/or selected would then proceed as per Agency resource capacity.

In keeping with CFIA's user fee policy and framework, the possibility of cost-recovery for private scheme assessment will be explored; however it is not addressed in this paper.

International Approaches

Internationally, several regulatory authorities (e.g. United States Food and Drug Administration, Netherlands Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority and the United Kingdom Food Safety Authority) are taking steps to incorporate industry's use of private certification schemes within their regulatory oversight framework in support of achieving public policy food safety objectives. This raises important questions concerning opportunities to align approaches with international regulatory counterparts.

While overarching objectives of enabling better planning and utilization of inspection resources are common to international approaches on use of private certification schemes by regulators, there are important distinctions. Of note, the CFIA is not proposing to:

  • recognize or endorse private certification schemes;
  • assume accreditation or certification responsibilities;
  • require submission of private certification scheme audit reports; or
  • require certification to a private scheme as a Canadian import requirement, or an admissibility requirement for other CFIA programs.

Mutual Recognition

At present, the CFIA proposes that if there is 'Systems Recognition' between two countries (i.e. formal recognition and acceptance of the food safety regulatory system between two countries), and a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) has been developed regarding private certification scheme assessments, it may be possible for Canada - the CFIA - to accept the results of another regulator's private scheme assessments, and similarly, share the results of its assessments with another country or regulatory authority where there is Systems Recognition.

Food Safety Modernization Act: Accreditation of Third-Party Auditors

Given the United States Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) mandate to establish a program for Accreditation of Third-Party Auditors, and the fact that the United States is a key export market for Canadian manufacturers and producers, the CFIA has undertaken a high level comparison of currently proposed approaches.Footnote *

Both proposals will help ensure the competence and independence of the accreditation and certifying bodies whose work may be relied upon by the respective regulatory authorities, which will be important for the regulatory authorities, consumers, and other stakeholders to have confidence in the approaches taken.

The FSMA proposal includes details on establishing credibility and confidence in certifying bodies and accreditation standards. As such, it makes sense for the CFIA to engage with the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to share ideas and information on this aspect.

The FSMA proposal contains requirements for accreditation bodies seeking recognition by the FDA as well as requirements for third-party auditors seeking accreditation.  The CFIA does not intend to recognize accreditation bodies, nor become an accreditation body.

As required by FSMA, the proposed FSMA rule includes requirements relating to auditing and certification of foreign food facilities and food under the program and for notifying the FDA of conditions in an audited facility that could cause or contribute to a serious risk to the public health. The concept outlined in this CFIA discussion paper is not linked to a regulatory requirement. As such, there is no requirement associated with notifying the CFIA about non-compliances (or non-conformances) identified during the course of an audit. The CFIA is focused on assessment against its regulatory requirements at the private certification scheme level – not the individual company audit results level.

Under the FSMA proposal, importers will not generally be required to obtain certifications, but the FDA may use certifications of compliance with FDA's regulatory requirements (i.e., public standards) in two targeted circumstances specified in the law. First, FDA may use certifications from accredited auditors in determining whether to admit certain imported food into the United States that the FDA has determined meets specific food safety risk criteria. Second, FDA may use certifications from accredited auditors in determining whether an importer is eligible to participate in a voluntary program now under development for expedited review and entry of food. The CFIA does not intend to require certification to any private scheme as a condition of importing into Canada, or admissibility into any other CFIA program.

Though FSMA defines the parameters of the current proposal, FDA has expressed its long-term vision of the role public-private collaboration – and particularly accredited third party certification – can play as an overlay to the work conducted by FDA itself, providing further food safety assurances that consumers seek.

Challenges and Opportunities

Multiplicity of Private Certification Schemes

A large and diverse number of private certification schemes exist, with sometimes, highly variable objectives and requirements (e.g. food safety, environmental, animal welfare, religious attributes, prevention of food fraud, fair trade).

The market-driven nature of private certification schemes and associated volume and multiplicity of schemes, certification and accreditation requirements, along with the overall consistency in maturity level of the private certification scheme industry (e.g. auditor availability and competency issues) need to be considered as the Agency proceeds to develop policies and processes associated with use of private certification schemes to inform risk-based oversight.

It is recognized that the costs for private companies to become certified to more than one private certification scheme, with overlapping requirements, are typically borne by the individual suppliers. Both industry, through global benchmarking efforts, and regulators, through scheme assessment initiatives, may be able to contribute to eventual harmonization, thereby leveraging investments, minimizing redundancy, targeting areas of highest risk and ultimately contributing to improved food safety outcomesFootnote 2.

Certifying Body Competency

Consistency in oversight, quality of service providers, auditor competencies and approaches to auditing, create questions regarding the effectiveness of some private certifying bodies. Additionally, as companies are required to pay certifying bodies for third party audits, it is important to ensure there are robust conflict of interest policies in place for the certifying bodies to ensure integrity and independence of results.

In developing a strategy and process to establish credibility and confidence in the competency of certifying bodies, there are a number of factors to be considered. Ensuring a certifying body is accredited by an accreditation body, to an internationally recognized standard, demonstrating that it is competent to carry out certification in specified food business sectors is critical. Accreditation bodies are established in many countries with the primary purpose of ensuring that certification bodies are subject to oversight by an authoritative body.

For instance, in Canada, the Standards Council of Canada (SCC) offers internationally-recognized accreditation programs for management system certification bodies. Accreditation by the SCC demonstrates that an organization has met the international standard for management system certification bodies and is able to competently assess and certify management systems, as per the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC).

It is important to note that the CFIA does not in any way intend to undertake certification or accreditation responsibilities, and as such, a strategy and process will be developed to enable the CFIA to capitalize upon existing structures and organizations such as the SCC to establish credibility and confidence in the data collected to inform Agency risk-based decision making on allocation of regulatory resources.

Existing Initiatives

This paper seeks to initiate a dialogue that will advance the Agency's approach to leveraging private certification as an input to regulatory risk assessment and resource allocation processes, and aims to learn from existing models and expertise.

There are several internal CFIA initiatives that may provide best practices and/or lessons learned for the Agency to consider in the continued development of this initiative, in particular, the Food Safety Recognition Program (FSRP). The FSRP is led by the CFIA with the participation and support of federal, provincial and territorial governments (see Annex A for more details). It is a process involving the evaluation of the technical soundness and administrative effectiveness of food safety systems developed and implemented by Canada's national (or equivalent) industry organizations. With almost fifteen years' experience, the FSRP could provide a basis for the development of government assessment processes and criteria for private certification schemes and certification body competency, as the FSRP requirements are comprehensive and based on internationally accepted standards and principles.

Additionally, there are several key sources of external information that have, and will continue to inform the Agency in this work.

For instance, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) has developed a discussion paper exploring private certification schemes. The paper documents emerging trends in the development of both public and private agri-food assurance systems and analyzes the likely impacts on domestic and global food markets if current trends continue. CFIA will continue to engage in discussions with AAFC on private certification schemes, to leverage knowledge and align approaches, as appropriate.

The Conference Board of Canada has published a research paper entitled, "The Pathway to Partnership" which assesses the challenges and opportunities that private schemes hold for the Canadian food systemFootnote 4. The report answers the following questions: What are the main features of private schemes; what are the economic forces that shape them; how are they being applied in Canada; and what are the opportunities for leveraging private schemes to address the public interest? In doing so, the report provides a conceptual and empirical foundation for future discussions about private schemes in Canada.

Global Benchmarking

There are global benchmarking initiatives that provide a platform for collaboration between some of the world's leading food safety experts from industry, international organizations, academia and government on private certification schemes. There are ongoing efforts to benchmark private schemes, such as through the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI).

GFSI has emerged in response to the recognition that many suppliers were facing requirements for multiple audits and certifications. Commonly accepted benchmarks enable suppliers to move to a "once certified, accepted everywhere" scenario, and help to reduce costs and facilitate tradeFootnote 5. Many private schemes in Canada and elsewhere are coalescing around the GFSI. CFIA may pursue discussions via such platforms to inform its decision making on use of private certification schemes.

Long-term Possibilities: Concurrence Approach

A concurrence approach, while distinct from the concept outlined in this paper, would build on this concept to further influence allocation of resources with a more specific focus on minimizing inefficiencies, and addressing redundancies between the public and private sector efforts.

The Conference Board of Canada defines a concurrence road map for the private and public sectors to increase their cooperation incrementally over timeFootnote 4. According to the Conference Board of Canada, a national concurrence system represents the best possible strategy for maximizing public–private cooperation in food governance. A national concurrence system is envisioned as a system in which public and private efforts are aligned and coordinated to identify and manage risks such as food safety. A concurrence system approach could enable public and private sectors to work together more collaboratively to achieve the stated public interest goal of food safety, while allowing the continued development and evolution of private certification schemes and cooperation on verification of industry's food safety practices. Ideally, such an approach could stimulate compliance and innovation in achieving public food safety standards across the entire supply chain while reducing overlaps, cost redundancies, and allowing for regulatory resources to focus more effectively on areas of greater riskFootnote 4.


There have been assertions that private certification schemes may sometimes include standards that are more rigorous than regulatory standards. This, coupled with the fact that adoption of private certification schemes is largely driven by retailers has led to concerns around de-regulation and endorsement of private scheme requirements. Concerns have been raised in international fora by developing countries about the impact of private certification schemes on their ability to competitively engage in trade.

The proposed concept is being constructed to avoid trade consequences. It is being considered and designed specifically to enable improved resource allocation and better planning. Additionally, it will provide for a framework to give companies credit for successfully achieving certification. Further, there is i) no regulatory requirement, ii) no intent to replace regulatory oversight and iii) no intent to outsource Agency inspection work associated with the proposed concept.


Private certification schemes can play a role in helping to achieve regulatory objectives, provided they are effective, credible and aligned with public policy objectivesFootnote 3, Footnote 4. Used as a factor within a risk-based model for ensuring that resources for regulatory oversight are allocated according to risk, leveraging private scheme certification may help minimize inefficiencies, overlap and cost redundancies associated with regulatory oversight.

The ability of government to leverage private certification schemes would be useful in the context of informing regulatory programming. While leadership in this area has been primarily driven by multi-national food retailers and processors, growing recognition and acceptance of private certification schemes does present the Agency with an opportunity to respond to, and consider possibilities for leveraging private certification to influence regulatory risk assessment and direct regulatory resources. The Agency will engage with members of the international regulatory community to ensure that Canadian approaches to leveraging the use of private certification schemes aligns with international approaches.

While the Agency is considering use of private certification schemes that can effectively and reliably contribute to public policy objectives related to food safety in this manner, it is important to note that the Agency will retain its regulatory responsibilities to verify compliance with regulatory standards. Similarly, individual companies will retain their responsibility for choosing private certification schemes that meet their business needs.

This discussion paper is a first step in generating feedback on the Agency's early thinking on formalizing its approach to leveraging industry's use of private certification schemes.

Questions for Consideration

Feedback is requested on the document itself, the questions provided, as well as any other commentary that may be important for CFIA to consider in the context of use of private certification schemes to inform regulatory oversight. Please send all feedback to:

  1. Should the Agency consider leveraging industry's adoption of private certification schemes to:
    • help achieve public policy objectives related to consumer protection, specifically, composition and labelling? If yes, to what extent?
    • inform the upcoming preventive control plan requirement associated with the Safe Food for Canadians Act and regulatory requirements? If yes, to what extent?
    • inform other areas of work beyond the concept proposed in the discussion paper?
  2. Should the CFIA consider the Global Food Safety Initiative benchmarking process in its assessment of private certification schemes? If yes, to what extent?

Annex A: Food Safety Recognition Program

The Food Safety Recognition Program is led by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) with the participation of the provincial and territorial governments. It is a process involving the evaluation of the technical soundness and administrative effectiveness of food safety systems developed and implemented by Canada's National (or equivalent) Industry Organizations.

The purpose of the recognition process is to provide a framework to ensure adequate government oversight to maintain the confidence of the delivery of an industry-led food safety system over time, in order to:

  • enhance food safety;
  • maintain the confidence of Canadian consumers and Canada's trading partners; and,
  • facilitate open access to the marketplace.

The Food Safety Recognition Program contains three distinct elements. These are:

  • Technical Review - The government review of the written technical and managerial components of an industry association's food safety system to assess its technical soundness and administrative effectiveness.
  • Implementation Assessment –The industry association's implementation of its food safety system, implementation audit, and the government review of the food safety system's implementation audit report and related materials to determine whether the national delivery of the food safety system conforms to written procedures and is delivered in a consistent manner.
  • Maintenance of Recognition Status - An ongoing evaluation framework to ensure that the industry's recognized food safety system remains technically sound and is implemented, administered and managed in a manner that fosters continual improvement of safe food practices.

Providing a recognition framework for national, auditable, industry-led, HACCP-based food safety systems, contributes to CFIA's objective for safeguarding Canada's food supply along the whole food continuum.

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