Quality Assurance – an area where the NI agri food industry excels

The top table at the  Northern Ireland Food Chain Certification AGM in Portadown. From left: Noel Lavery, Operations Manager; Valerie McCann, Company Secretary; Robin Irvine, Chairman and Claire Garvey, MG Accountants. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/ Newry.ie
The top table at the Northern Ireland Food Chain Certification AGM in Portadown. From left: Noel Lavery, Operations Manager; Valerie McCann, Company Secretary; Robin Irvine, Chairman and Claire Garvey, MG Accountants. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/ Newry.ie

Whether the agri food industry will maintain all of its markets post Brexit or will be actively seeking new customers are major discussion topics. However one aspect is common to all markets – they want food quality, including safety, environmental and animal welfare as vital aspects in the marketing mix.

The good news is that Northern Ireland is in a unique position to supply this and even more importantly, supply it cost effectively. Almost 20 years ago the industry had the foresight to introduce an industry led food certification programme to certify that the highest quality standards were being maintained.

That was only the first step – they got together as an industry body to develop and define these standards and to finance their implementation, thus providing quality assurance cost effectively for the consumer.

The NI Food Chain Certification (NIFCC) an accredited certification body was launched.

All aspects of the farming and food industries are represented on NIFCC, and they employ highly qualified independent professional people to inspect and maintain the standards. Quality Assurance, which is independently verified, is putting the entire agri food chain in Northern Ireland at the leading edge of food safety.

NIFCC chairman, Robin Irvine explained: “NIFCC is a United Kingdom Accreditation Service (UKAS) accredited certification body which was established in February 2001. We were established, and are owned by the Northern Ireland agri-food industry, we operate on a “not for profit“ basis and our remit is to provide product certification schemes to the local agri-food industry at a competitive cost.

“We are delivering audit and certification services to farm assurance schemes for Beef and Lamb, Poultry, Cereals, Dairy, Livestock Transport and Livestock Markets.

“In the food processing sector, NIFCC currently provides audit and certification to the British Retail Consortium (BRC) Global Standard for Food Safety, BRC Global Standard for Storage and Distribution and the Red Tractor Meat Processing Scheme.”

He continued: “Uncertainty for the agri food industry post Brexit has resulted in much discussion and many predictions. However one common theme throughout all of this has been the need to differentiate our products in order to penetrate new markets and maintain existing customers. An aspect that all customers require is quality assurance – not just high quality standards but the assurance that these are independently monitored and continually upgraded.”

NIFCC are also continuing to provide training to the food industry, against the British Retail Consortium Standards. BRC published Issue 8 of their Food Safety Standard in August this year and NIFCC currently has bookings to deliver nine training courses to 95 delegates, including their own auditing and certification staff, in preparation for the commencement of audits against Issue 8 in February next year.

During the forthcoming year, NIFCC are anticipating another significant increase in membership of the Red Tractor Dairy Scheme, driven by the ongoing restructuring and consolidation within the milk processing sector. This has the potential to increase the Red Tractor Dairy Scheme membership by approximately 50 per cent.

Another significant development, which is scheduled for the forthcoming year, is the proposed introduction of a system of risk-based, unannounced inspections by Red Tractor. The current proposal, by Red Tractor, will involve scheme members being selected for unannounced, spot-check inspections on the basis of a risk assessment, which will be dependent on the outcome of their most recent farm inspection. This proposal will present challenges, both for NIFCC and for scheme members, and also has the potential to add significantly to the inspections workload.

Robin concluded: “On behalf of the Directors, I would like to thank Jonathan Carson for his contribution to the Certification Committee, having served on the committee for two years. I would also like to welcome Jonathan’s successor, John Fleming, and on behalf of the Directors I would like to thank John for accepting his nomination and wish him well during his term of office.

“The Directors also wish to thank the Certification Committee Chairman, Liam McNeill, and the other members of the committee for continuing to give their time, commitment and expertise to ensure the smooth running of the inspection and certification services.”