What Safety Professionals Need to Know About HACCP Systems
HACCP systems reverse the traditional end-of-the-line inspection process to ensure that pathogens are controlled before they can spread.
Every worksite has its share of risks, but food safety requires a specialized approach to keep its hazards in check. The potential consequences for oversights and omissions can be tremendous. And the longer hazards remain uncontrolled, the more the risk grows.
Think of it this way: under normal circumstances, some hazards are discrete units. The risks are real, but their effects tend to be contained. A nail sticking out from the wall is like this. There is a chance that someone will walk by and get scratched, but that scratch will not harm anyone else.
The presence of pathogens, on the other hand, is a risk that grows. Unlike a protruding nail, a biological hazard that is left uncontrolled can spread to every single surface in the workplace - and even beyond the bounds of the jobsite.
(Learn more about Biological Hazard Control)
Food processing facilities need a way to keep these hazards under control. But there's no reason to re-invent the hazard control wheel every single time. Hazard control systems have proven effective in food and beverage processing for decades.
This brings us to the HACCP system.
What Is the HACCP System?
Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP) is an international series of safety standards for food manufacturing and handling. HACCP systems are widely recognized across the food industry and all of its subsectors, including production, manufacturing, storage, sales, delivery, and food service. At almost any site where food is handled professionally, HACCP is accepted as the standard hazard control methodology.
The HACCP system dates back to the 1960s, when it was originally conceived in collaboration between NASA and Pilsbury as a quality control measure for the manufacture of food for the space program. For obvious reasons, there would be major consequences if the food produced and stored for these purposes became tainted in any way. To ensure the intergrity of the food, they devised a reversal of the old-school control strategy in order to “front load” the analysis and inspection efforts, rather than trying to catch defects.
A spiritual successor of the HACCP strategy was conceived back during World War II as a way to improve the quality of artillery shells, since testing for duds at the end of the line would be difficult (and you would probably be hard pressed to find anyone who would volunteer to do it). Effort was better spent upstream, by itegrating controls into the earlier process steps.
That is the core principle of HACCP – that a safety system focused on prevention and control of hazards, rather than inspection, is the most effective way to ensure safety and quality of the end product. It is better to put controls in place to mitigate problems instead of scrambling to identify the resulting defects and hazards down the line.
HACCP and Quality Control Systems
Although it not itself considered a quality control system, HACCP as a strategy does echo some well-known quality management best practices.
In quality control, there is a goal to reduce reliance on end-of-the-line inspections, since finding problems so late in the process is inefficient, laborious, and prone to error. For example, Deming’s “14 Points for Management” prominently advocates for this approach in the quality management sphere (though it wasn’t articulated until 20 years after HACCP first appeared).
HACCP, then, has a lot in common with other control processes in the safety and quality fields. It’s not worlds-apart from those other methodologies; rather, it is simply fine-tuned for the food industry.
Critical Control Points and Critical Limits
The key differentiator of the HACCP approach may be its focus on “Critical Control Points” and “Critical Limits.”
A Critical Control Point is the standard procedural step at which a hazard can be eliminated or controlled, while the Critical Limit is the maximum acceptable level of the hazard. The standard is not overly prescriptive about how to actually achieve this, and instead relies on organizations to figure out how these concepts apply to their own operations. Of course, in order to monitor and conform, companies also need to identify the hazards, figure out what levels are acceptable, and know how to measure them.
Within a HACCP system, an organization has thoroughly analyzed the component steps of their key processes and identified critical points at which controls must be applied to keep hazards at a safe level. For each control point, the relevant hazards, controls, and critical limits should be documented, as well as how they will be practically assessed. All process inputs and outputs need to be considered.
The Good Manufacturing Program Standard
In the food production industry, HACCP-certified companies have the prerequisite of a Good Manufacturing Program (GMP).
The GMP is a contributing quality control standard that ensures the condition and sanitation of manufacturing equipment, control of pests, and traceability and recall planning for tainted lots.
GMP systems are an important complement to a HACCP implementation to address several factors that are not directly handled within a HACCP program itself.
Hazards Controlled by HACCP Systems
Given the nature of the product and the ability of pathogens to spread quickly, most controls in food production are focused on biological hazards.
HACCP systems, however, considers other types of hazards as well. It is important, for instance, to prevent hazardous quantities of the chemicals used in food production, equipment operation, or sanitizing from making it into the food itself.
Controlling chemicals requires a company to maintain an inventory of all the chemicals used, their purpose, their practical usage instructions, interactions, measures for control of release, hazard information, and so on. All of this information must be known and properly disseminated, and some means of testing may be needed to ensure the controls are adequate.
Through a properly implemented HACCP program, the appropriate data is retained and monitored to ensure that the chemical (and all other) hazards are controlled.
An Ongoing Process
As with many safety and quality system implementations, a plan-do-check-act cycle is followed. The “check” or validation step means not only monitoring of the many small and changing variables, but also macro-level assessments of the system as a whole.
Companies that are HACCP certified must submit to an initial and periodic follow-up audits by a third-party HACCP certifying authority. The end goal of the audit cycle is to ensure conformance to a minimum standard, but also to help an organization focus on continual improvement through corrective action.