The SQF system is a set of international food safety standards that apply to all stages of the food cycle to ensure consumers receive safe, high-quality products. In this article, we look at the SQF system and certification process for restaurants.
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Various food safety standards and regulations exist to ensure restaurants provide customers with safe, high-quality food.
These standards protect diners’ health and safety while safeguarding your business against potential fines and legal action resulting from poor food safety practices.
One globally recognized standard is the Safe Quality Food (SQF) system. SQF is used worldwide to certify businesses involved in every stage of the food life cycle, from primary production to food service.
However, the SQF system can look complex at first glance, and the certification process can feel overwhelming.
That’s why we’ve compiled this guide to help you understand SQF and what it means for your restaurant. We cover how to implement an SQF program and apply for certification. Plus, we offer tips for ensuring SQF compliance in your business.
- Safe Quality Food (SQF) is a set of food safety and quality standards that apply to the production, manufacturing, packaging, supply, and sale of food.
- The Safe Quality Food Institute oversees SQF, including site audits and certification processes.
- Although SQF certification isn’t mandatory, you can get SQF certified to protect your customer’s health, improve compliance with food safety laws and regulations, and gain a competitive advantage.
- There are several ways to support SQF compliance in your organization, including training your staff and engaging an SQF consultant.
What Does SQF Stand For?
The meaning of SQF is “safe quality food,” which refers to a set of international food safety and quality standards designed to manage and reduce safety risks across all stages of food production and service.
SQF ensures certified businesses meet stringent standards, assuring consumers they’ve safely produced, handled, and prepared food.
These standards are based on hazard analysis critical control points (HACCP), a food safety system that identifies and addresses physical, chemical, and biological hazards in food production processes.
These hazards include contaminants like metal fragments, chemical residues like pesticides, and bacterial pathogens like Salmonella.
The Safe Quality Food Institute (SQFI) manages SQF programs, certifications, and management systems.
The SQF framework takes a “farm to fork” approach that applies to various food industry businesses, including:
How SQF applies to restaurants
Initially developed in Australia, SQF is now used worldwide and is GFSI-recognized. The GFSI is the Global Food Safety Initiative, a private organization that promotes the development of food safety management systems. By embracing SQF, restaurants help ensure top-notch, globally recognized safety practices and consistent food quality.
SQF can help restaurants in 2 ways. Firstly, you can choose to work only with producers and suppliers with SQF certification to ensure your ingredients have been prepared, packaged, and handled safely. You can also become SQF certified to demonstrate your commitment to food safety and compliance with industry best practices.
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Is SQF certification mandatory?
No, SQF certification is voluntary and not required by law.
Restaurants may implement the procedures and practices set out in SQF guidelines without applying for certification. However, there are several reasons why you may choose to become certified.
Most importantly, food safety certifications ensure you have rigorous food safety procedures to reduce the risk of foodborne contamination or illnesses, protecting your customers’ health. This risk isn’t a hypothetical issue. According to the GFSI, 1 in 10 people become unwell after eating contaminated food each year.
From a business perspective, certification helps you comply with strict food safety regulations and standards. This reduces the risk of fines or other legal issues related to food safety violations.
SQF certification also instills trust in customers, who are more likely to visit restaurants that provide safe, high-quality food. Plus, it can give you an edge over competitors that aren’t SQF-certified.
For these reasons, many businesses choose to become SQF-certified. According to the SQFI, over 12,000 sites across 40 countries have SQF certification.
The SQF Code
The SQF Food Safety Code sets various food quality standards for food manufacturers, producers, distributors, retailers, and food service providers.
It contains 11 industry-specific codes, including—relevantly to restaurants—a specific one for food service. The Food Safety Code for Foodservice sets out various mandatory and optional food safety system elements and good operating practices (GOPs) for businesses to incorporate into their SQF systems.
Some key requirements under the Foodservice Code include:
- Prepare a food safety policy made available to all staff and reviewed annually.
- Create a food safety manual for employees detailing the processes for complying with the code.
- Prepare a food safety plan that complies with relevant laws and industry codes of practice.
- Develop a complaint management procedure to effectively handle, document, and address any food safety concerns that customers raise.
- Conduct and document regular internal audits to check the effectiveness of the SQF system and compliance.
- Take corrective action where an internal audit identifies non-compliance.
- Deliver training programs for employees.
- Ensure employees are adequately resourced to support the SQF system.
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Meanwhile, GOPs address operational issues, including:
- Site layout and designs that reduce any risk of product contamination or cross-contact—for example, separate storage areas for food and cleaning products.
- Food-safe building and construction materials, such as shatterproof light fittings in food preparation areas.
- Vermin and pest prevention measures, like effectively sealed windows, doors, and ventilation openings.
- Cleaning programs that identify what to clean and how and when to clean these things.
- Personal food handling and preparation practices, such as tying back hair.
Steps in the SQF certification process
Becoming SQF certified can take 6 to 12 months, depending on factors like the size of your business. Here are the main steps involved.
Familiarize yourself with the code
Specifically, you should look at the Foodservice Code. This detailed, 59-page document guides you on preparing for certification, the certification process itself, and the system elements and GOPs you must implement to pass an audit.
Register for certification
Once you understand your obligations under the code, you can register for certification via the SQFI’s website. The SQFI offers a range of SQF certification programs for primary production, manufacturing, packaging, retail, and food service businesses.
You’ll provide your contact details, information about your business, and the type of certification you want to pursue. You’ll also choose a certification body. These are facilities licensed to conduct SQF audits and issue certificates. The SQFI’s website provides a directory of certification bodies. Your choice depends on the type of SQF certification you’re pursuing, the cost, and the location of the certification body.
When you register for certification, you must pay a registration fee, which varies depending on the type of certification you’re after. For food service certification, the fee is currently $250.
Get ready for the audit
There are several steps involved in preparing for an audit.
Appoint an SQF practitioner
You must designate someone in your organization to oversee the planning and implementation of your SQF program. An SQF practitioner must:
- Be an employee of your business.
- Be in a position of responsibility to lead an SQF program.
- Have completed a HACCP or preventive controls qualified individual (PCQI) training course.
- Be able to implement and maintain HACCP-based plans.
- Have a working knowledge of the SQF Code.
💡 Pro Tip
Businesses typically appoint several SQF practitioners to ensure there’s always someone available to oversee SQF compliance.
Decide the scope of certification
This step involves identifying which processes to include in your SQF system based on the Foodservice Code. Doing this helps you understand what you need to implement and document your food safety system and how your practices will be audited.
Your chosen certification body must approve this step, and documentation of this step must be added to the SQF Assessment Database.
Document and implement your SQF system
You must then prepare the necessary policies and procedures to comply with the system elements and GOPs under the code. For instance, you might enforce a policy for using older inventory first to prevent spoilage, or you might establish regular fridge and freezer temperature log checks to ensure safe food storage.
Writing such policies clearly and ensuring they’re readily available to all employees is essential to support effective implementation. To do this, add the relevant policies and procedures to your organization’s knowledge base, employee handbook, and onboarding materials.
With your policies and procedures written down, you can then implement them. You should also keep SQF compliance records for audit purposes. An example of this is requiring employees to complete food safety checklists at the start and end of each shift.
Businesses should have at least 90 days of compliance records available before proceeding to an audit.
🧠 Did You Know?
Connecteam is an ideal solution for streamlining the creation of your SQF documents and forms, such as policies, procedures, and manuals. You can also use Connecteam’s knowledge base system to centrally store your documents so employees can easily find and access them from anywhere.
Book your audit
An auditor from your chosen certification body will complete an initial certification audit. This involves reviewing your SQF system to ensure it complies with the relevant code and your policies and procedures.
During the audit process, an auditor may speak to employees, review documents, and physically inspect the site and its operations. They also might identify areas you need to address before they can certify your site.
Should this happen, you must provide evidence of the steps to address these issues. For example, an audit may reveal that while you employ English- and Spanish-speaking employees in your restaurant, your food safety policy is only available in English. The auditor may require you to prepare a Spanish version of the policy for certification.
Based on the audit report, the certification body issues a certificate for your site. You’ll receive both electronic and hard copies of the certification. Once you receive this, you can display the SQF logo to publicize your compliance.
Regularly renew your certification
You must renew your SQF certificate annually. To do this, you can register with the SQF Assessment Database and book in for a re-registration audit.
🧠 Did You Know?
Connecteam is the ideal tool to help you manage your restaurant’s daily operations. You can use it to onboard and train staff, communicate directly with your employees, create and share work schedules, manage your rewards and recognition program, and more.
Tips for supporting SQF compliance in your restaurant
SQF compliance is an ongoing process that requires buy-in from everyone in your organization. Here are several ways you can foster a culture of SQF compliance.
Seek assistance from a consultant
SQF consultants can help you develop and implement your SQF program. The SQFI accredits these consultants after they undergo specific SQF systems and HACCP training. They also have at least 5 years’ industry experience.
💡 Pro Tip
To learn more about SQF consultants and find one to assist you, visit the SQFI website, which has a list of registered SQF consultants.
Train your employees about their SQF responsibilities
Training is one of the system elements under the Foodservice Code. It requires you to document and implement an employee training program educating staff on GOPs and food regulatory requirements, as well as the steps staff must take to implement your food safety plan.
Employees who understand their food safety obligations and the broader context are more likely to support your SQF program.
You can organize this training through an external provider or develop your own program. Incorporate any training program into your onboarding so new employees understand your food safety plan. In addition, you must provide ongoing training to staff to ensure their knowledge is up to date.
Streamline compliance with template forms and checklists
Documenting compliance is a large part of the SQF requirements. Documents you may create for your SQF program include:
- Food safety checklists.
- Supplier verification forms.
- Cleaning and maintenance records.
Creating standard documents and templates like these saves your employees time and ensures consistent record-keeping across the business.
You might be also interested in read our in-depth review of best restaurant checklist apps for 2023
🧠 Did You Know?
Connecteam can help you deliver and record employee training and create custom digital forms and checklists tailored to your SQF programs, all from the same app. This is a great way to ensure your employees can access the training and documents they need from anywhere.
What is the difference between HACCP and SQF?
HACCP is a process for identifying and addressing potential food safety risks. SQF is a set of food safety standards that incorporate the HACCP system. Together, these concepts make up a framework for ensuring the safety and quality of food products for consumers.
What is the GFSI?
The Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) is a collection of consumer goods companies that oversees and supports food safety standards worldwide. The GFSI does this through capacity building, knowledge sharing, and benchmarking food safety standards to ensure they meet international best practices.
SQF is a food safety management system that protects consumers by ensuring safe, high-quality food products. By applying for SQF certification, you demonstrate your commitment to industry best practices and food safety standards while keeping your customers—and your restaurant—safe.
However, the certification process can be lengthy and requires time and money, so it pays to do your research and seek further assistance from organizations such as the SQFI.
With the above steps and tips as a starting point, you can reduce the risk of food contamination and foster a culture of compliance within your business.
The information presented on this website about SQF certification is intended to be a summary for informational purposes only. However, laws and regulations regularly change and may vary depending on individual circumstances. While we have made every effort to ensure the information provided is up to date and reliable, we cannot guarantee its completeness, accuracy, or applicability to your specific situation. Therefore, we strongly recommend that readers seek guidance from their legal department or a qualified attorney to ensure compliance with applicable laws and regulations. Please note that we cannot be held liable for any actions taken or not taken based on the information presented on this website.