The case of one company’s journey from ‘appalling’ food safety to third party certification provided a refreshingly honest view on the effect major companies can have on food safety – even for the smallest start-ups – at the GFSI conference in Barcelona last week.
Iván Báez co-founded a cream alcohol start-up called Eman in 2003, located in a small town in Chile. He had spotted an opportunity to make lower cost cream liqueur bases for the local market, which had traditionally relied on expensive imports.
A food safety plan? Well, that was not part of the strategy.
Báez is now among those advocating for a global, non-negotiable, third-party certified food safety system, such as that of the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI). It took him and his company a long time to get there, but eventually Eman was certified under GFSI – and the business is stronger than ever.
Speaking through an interpreter, he told delegates that the company grew quickly in its first years – it even managed to attract Walmart as a customer – but headaches began when Walmart started requiring all its suppliers to meet GFSI’s standards in 2010.
“We had pretty appalling standards in the factory,” Báez confessed. “But for us it was Hollywood. We were just three crazy guys with a big idea.”
‘The first Walmart audit was a catastrophe’
The company is now in compliance with all Chilean and US food safety laws, but Báez said that the first Walmart audit was “a catastrophe”. He was told that Eman had to meet its standards or lose Walmart as a customer. For Walmart, Eman was considered a high risk supplier.
“It was really hard for me to change my mindset,” Báez said. “For me, I wasn’t working for BRC or GFSI. It was taking away from what I thought was really important….We just wanted to sell, sell, sell, and we would just fix things along the way.”
The company was given six months to sort out its standards, and reduced its food safety transgressions to 50 – 47 minor and three major.
“The fact that Walmart said we had to have certification meant that we had to change our systems,” he said, and the company pulled out all the stops to gain GFSI certification in 2011.
“We had intense training and we needed a change in mindset to really change where the business was going. Everyone in the company was working towards this quality target.”
Now, Eman is a leading producer of cream liqueurs for the South American liqueur industry, and bottles and distributes liqueurs too. Its sales were about US$2.5m in 2011.
“[Certification] is not just about having a good quality product and having good customer relations, but financially it is also a gain for the company…We have certainly saved money and got back all we invested and more.”