Originally printed in the July 2022 issue of Produce Business.
The merchants at Hunts Point Market take their role in ensuring food safety seriously, and several have invested in SQF (Safe Quality Food) certification through the Food Marketing Institute (FMI).
FMI conducts the SQF program, a rigorous food safety and quality assurance program that is recognized by retailers, brand owners and foodservice providers worldwide, including the Global Food Safety Initiative. The SQF family of food safety and quality codes meets industry, customer and regulatory requirements for all sectors of the food supply chain.
E. Armata is among those members of the Hunts Point cooperative that has implemented an SQF program.
In 2019, Ariel Muza joined the company as its food safety director, according to Michael Armata, buyer and salesman, and E. Armata obtained its SQF certification with the quality module in October 2019.
“Our goal has always been to have the cleanest facility with the highest quality products and provide the best service possible,” Armata says, adding the food safety program has opened many avenues, such as gaining shippers and customers.
“Most of our customers require or feel more comfortable knowing our facility is SQF certified. Our shippers can trust their product is in good hands in a clean and safe facility, unlike many people’s image of the market from so many years ago.”
Times have changed, Armata emphasizes, and everyone in the supply chain insists on food safety practices. “In 2012, we completely renovated our warehouse space to become more efficient and cold-chain compliant. Two years later, in 2014, we obtained our HACCP certification with a 100% superior rating under our head of operations, Nicholas Lomax.”
S. Katzman Produce, Bronx, NY, determined to pursue SQF certification as part of an evolving food safety program.
“We had other certifications prior to SQF, including GHP/GAP and Food Defense Certifications, then became SQF certified in 2017,” says Stefanie Katzman, the company’s executive vice president. “Food safety is incredibly important to Katzman. Our grower/shippers trust us to protect the food supply chain, including the quality and integrity of their products, and our customers rely on us to deliver that same fresh, high-quality produce to them and their shoppers. Our diligent food safety practices are integral to this process.”
Another Hunts Point wholesaler, A & J Produce Corporation, is working toward a September audit and “the ultimate” in food safety with SQF certification, says Stephanie Tramutola, social media director and accounts payable manager. Today, to work with larger supermarket chains, she adds, SQF is pretty much a requirement.
“At A&J, our commitment to food safety is one of our top priorities and we are proud that we will be SQF certified to elevate our existing work to ensure that every piece of produce is perfect for our customers and end consumers,” she says. “We’re making sure we’re crossing our T’s and dotting our I’s.”
John Thomas Bonomolo, office manager, says that SQF requires cooperation across the company because it is, in many ways, a reconsideration of how to incorporate food safety into every process.
“It’s a level of cleanliness, to keep our warehouses in pristine condition throughout the day, constant sanitation is a must even with the amount of work going on,” he says. “You’re constantly ensuring proper clean up. You’re maintaining the cold chain from the truck through to the warehouse. On every level, you have to make sure to uphold these practices.”
Stephanie Tramutola adds, “It’s a learning process, but it’s implemented into the daily routine, making sure we are consistently working as a team.”
To implement an SQF program, FMI suggests interested food businesses first get basic information through several means, such as attending an SQF Information Day, an in-person informational seminar designed to introduce companies to the benefits of food safety and quality certification, or taking an on-site Implementing SQF Systems training course through a licensed SQF Training Center.
Those interested also can take the online Implementing SQF Systems training provided by Alchemy, an education firm, at www.alchemysystems.com, or train themselves by using the SQF documents available for free at www.sqfi.com, or take an Implementing SQF Systems online examination.
The second step is registering the business with the institute’s assessment database, which comes with a fee based on a company’s gross sales. At that point, common procedure calls for designation of an employee as an SQF Practitioner.
Businesses can choose their level or area of certification, one for low risk products, one based on a certified HACCP food safety plan that is benchmarked by GFSI, and one based on a comprehensive implementation of safety and quality management systems that incorporates the HACCP level.
Businesses can obtain proposals from SQF licensed certification bodies to get quotes for and details about an SQF certification audit. They then conduct a pre-assessment. Although doing so is optional, an assessment can identify gaps in a program between what is being done and what is required for SQF certification. The SQF licensed Certification Body identifies who can conduct an audit in the country where the operation seeking certification does business. The Certification Body then conducts Initial Certification Audits.
Phillip Grant, Hunts Point Market chief executive, says, although the market administration doesn’t get directly involved in SQF initiatives, it works to accommodate merchant requirements when they schedule audits. Enhancing food safety practices at the market “has been an ongoing trend, especially with SQF over the last several years.”