Everything You Need To Know About SQF

Enhancing food safety and quality is not just a legal requirement; it’s the ethical foundation of a sustainable food industry. The Safe Quality Food (SQF) program plays a pivotal role in this pursuit. But what is SQF, and why should ...

All about SQF

Enhancing food safety and quality is not just a legal requirement; it’s the ethical foundation of a sustainable food industry. The Safe Quality Food (SQF) program plays a pivotal role in this pursuit. But what is SQF, and why should a food manufacturer care?

In this comprehensive guide, we unravel the intricacies of SQF certification, from demystifying its fundamentals to outlining the nitty-gritty of achieving and maintaining SQF compliance.

What is SQF?

The Safe Quality Food (SQF) program is one of the leading food safety and quality certification systems in the world. Administered by the Safe Quality Food Institute (SQFI), a division of the FMI – The Food Industry Association, it’s designed to ensure the development, implementation, and maintenance of robust food safety and quality management systems.

What is the Purpose of SQF?

The Objective of the SQF Program in the Food Industry aims to help businesses in the food industry bolster their reputation, access new markets, and, most importantly, protect public health by consistently delivering safe, high-quality food products.

How Does SQF Keep Food Safe?

SQF certification encompasses a comprehensive approach to food safety, premised on the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) methodology. This internationally recognized system focuses on identifying and managing potential hazards throughout the food production and distribution process. By mandating the analysis of food production procedures for potential safety risks, the SQF program ensures that food manufacturers pinpoint, control, and continuously monitor critical points in the process where food safety could be compromised. This preemptive stance towards hazard management significantly diminishes the likelihood of foodborne illnesses and contaminations, thereby maintaining the integrity of the food supply chain.

Does SQF Improve Food Quality?

SQF program mandates a rigorous and continuous improvement process for quality management systems. This involves systematic and regular audits conducted by third-party certifiers who ensure compliance with the highest standards set by the SQFI. Through these audits, manufacturers are encouraged to consistently evaluate and enhance their food safety and quality protocols, keeping pace with the latest industry knowledge and practices.

Consequently, SQF certification not only assures the safety and quality of food products at a given point in time but also fosters a culture of excellence and continuous improvement within food manufacturing entities, contributing to a safer food supply globally.

Why Do You Need SQF?

With consumer awareness at an all-time high, food safety has become a competitive advantage. Understanding what is SQF certification reveals it not only meets the demand for safety but also provides a universal language for suppliers and buyers to communicate about food quality and safety expectations.

Additional Benefits of SQF Certification

Besides raising the bar for food safety, SQF certification brings a host of additional benefits that can significantly enhance the operational and business aspects of a food enterprise.

Streamlines Production Implementing SQF will establish clear protocols and standards, leading to increased efficiency and reduction in waste.
Enhanced Efficiency An effective SQF program will lower costs and also increase the potential for profitability.
Quality and Reliability SQF is seen as a superior food safety certification by retailers and consumers alike, which can greatly strengthen a brand’s reputation and marketability.
Brand Recognition SQF certification often leads to expanded market access and the opportunity to command higher prices for certified products.
Food Safety Culture By fostering a culture of continuous improvement and proactive risk management, SQF certification empowers businesses to stay ahead of regulatory changes, reducing the risk of non-compliance penalties and costly recalls.

SQF certification is not just an investment in food safety but a strategic business decision that can yield substantial operational and financial dividends.

Need some help with SQF? We have SQF Consultants that can write your SQF program and help you implement it.

Is HACCP Required for SQF?

Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) is a fundamental component of SQF Level 2 certification, focusing on the identification and control of food safety hazards. A HACCP plan is the backbone of most food safety systems and it is essential to have a correctly written and implemented HACCP plan.

How to Become SQF Certified

Steps to become SQF certified

Becoming SQF certified requires a methodical approach:

Prepare: Understand the standard requirements and ensure your facility meets them. This can be a long and complicated process. See our detailed guide on how to prepare for SQF audit.

Train: Educate your staff on the SQF codes and practices. You will need staff trained to be SQF practitioners to operate your SQF program successfully.

Document: Develop a robust SQF food safety plan and supporting documentation.

Implement: Integrate the SQF requirements into your business’s daily operations.

Internal Audit: Conduct a rigorous internal audit to identify gaps.

External Audit: Schedule an SQF audit with a registered SQF certification body (CB). Here’s our article about how to pass an SQF audit.

Close the Gaps: Address any non-conformities found during the audit.

Certify: Receive SQF certification upon successful SQF audit and CB’s approval.

Levels of SQF Certification: What to Aim For

Level 1: Food Safety Fundamentals. This is the entry tier that focuses on basic food safety practices. It is designed for businesses that need to establish fundamental food safety controls but are not yet ready for a more comprehensive approach. It’s an ideal starting point for small and medium-sized enterprises looking to improve their food safety management systems.

Level 2: Certified HACCP Food Safety Plans. At this level, businesses are required to implement effective food safety controls based on Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) principles. This certification demonstrates a company’s commitment to a systematic approach to identifying, evaluating, and controlling food safety hazards.

Level 3: Comprehensive Food Safety and Quality Management. This highest level of certification combines stringent food safety management with quality management systems. Businesses that achieve Level 3 certification are recognized for their excellence in producing safe, high-quality food products consistently. This level represents a significant commitment to not just regulatory compliance but to industry-leading best practices.

Levels of SQF certification

While Level 1 serves as a great introduction to the SQF system, ambitious food manufacturers often set their sights on Level 2 or even the highest echelon, Level 3, which encompasses not only safety but the broader aspect of product quality.

The Time and Cost of SQF Certification

The investment in SQF certification, both in terms of time and cost, is a strategic decision that depends on several factors, including the size and complexity of your operations, the current level of your food safety management systems, and your facility’s readiness to meet SQF Standards. Generally, the certification path can take anywhere from six months to a year, allowing for the comprehensive preparation, training, documentation, and implementation phases to be adequately executed.

Expenses can be broadly categorized into prep costs, training fees, SQF consultancy, and the certification audit itself. Prep costs include any necessary upgrades to facilities or processes to align with SQF Standards, while training fees cover educational courses for your team members on SQF codes and practices. Some companies may also hire an SQF consultant to streamline the certification process, which is an additional cost. Finally, the certification audit conducted by a registered SQF certification body incurs a fee, which varies based on the audit’s scope and the facility size.

While the upfront investment may seem formidable, the ROI from achieving SQF certification translates into enhanced market access, improved consumer trust, and a fortified defense against food safety risks, making it a worthwhile investment for any food manufacturer committed to excellence in food safety and quality.

SQF certification is not a quick or inexpensive process. The timeline and costs vary based on the size and complexity of the operation, including factors like the number of products, employees, and site facilities.

Challenges in Maintaining SQF Compliance

Maintaining compliance with the Safe Quality Food (SQF) Program presents a variety of challenges for food manufacturers. These difficulties often stem from the complexity and rigor of the SQF standards, which necessitate ongoing commitment and vigilance.

Resource constraints are a principal challenge, as implementing and upholding SQF standards demands significant investment in both time and money. Small to medium-sized enterprises, in particular, may find it daunting to allocate the necessary resources without compromising other aspects of their operations.

Staying updated with SQF requirement changes requires a proactive approach to ensure that food safety management systems remain effective and compliant.

Ongoing employee training and engagement play a critical role in maintaining SQF compliance. Ensuring that all staff members are adequately trained and understand the importance of their roles within the SQF system is essential. However, fostering a culture of food safety and quality can be challenging, especially in environments where turnover rates are high or where the workforce is diverse.

Documentation and record-keeping are foundational elements of the SQF Program, yet managing these aspects can be overwhelmingly complex. The need for meticulous, up-to-date records means that any lapses in documentation can lead to non-compliance issues during audits. This challenge is exacerbated by manual record-keeping processes, which are prone to errors and inefficiencies. More and more, food and beverage companies are implementing SQF management software to handle documentation as well as other aspects of their food safety system.

Supply chain management represents a critical challenge. Ensuring that suppliers and contractors also adhere to SQF standards requires diligent oversight and coordination. This is particularly challenging in a globalized market, where supply chains can span multiple countries, each with its own set of regulations and standards.

Overcoming SQF Challenges - Software for SQF Management

Leveraging software to manage your SQF food safety program brings significant advantages over traditional paper-based systems. Software solutions designed for SQF management streamline the process of documenting, tracking, and maintaining the myriad requirements for certification. By centralizing data, such software enhances accessibility and ensures real-time visibility into compliance activities across all levels of your organization. This can significantly reduce the time spent on manual record-keeping, facilitate seamless audit trails, and simplify identifying and addressing non-conformities before they escalate.

Furthermore, SQF software systems often feature built-in alerts and reminders that help ensure critical tasks, such as regular audits or training sessions, are completed on time. This proactive approach to management can dramatically reduce the risk of non-compliance and the associated costs of rectification. The ability to generate reports with a few clicks also allows for efficient communication with certifying bodies and stakeholders, demonstrating compliance and dedication to the highest standards of food safety.

In comparison to paper systems, which are inherently vulnerable to damage, loss, and human error, a digital approach offers a secure and reliable method of record-keeping. Software solutions provide backup features and data protection measures, ensuring that your vital SQF documentation is preserved and protected against unforeseen events. This level of security and reliability further supports your organization’s commitment to maintaining rigorous food safety standards, ultimately enhancing trust with consumers and partners alike.

The Relationship Between GFSI and SQF

The relationship between the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) and the Safe Quality Food (SQF) Program is one of endorsement and alignment. GFSI, an industry-driven initiative aiming to ensure consumer trust in the delivery of safer food worldwide, recognizes SQF as one of its benchmarked certification programs. This endorsement signifies that SQF meets the high standards for food safety management systems stipulated by GFSI. For food manufacturers, this alignment means that obtaining an SQF certification also aligns their operations with the globally recognized standards of GFSI, facilitating broader acceptance in international markets and among discerning consumers who demand the highest levels of food safety.

Furthermore, the GFSI benchmarking process ensures that the SQF Program continuously evolves in response to emerging food safety risks and new scientific insights. This dynamic relationship ensures that SQF-certified manufacturers meet current industry and regulatory standards and are prepared for future challenges. Operating under the umbrella of GFSI’s global food safety standards, SQF certification empowers food manufacturers with a solid foundation to enhance food safety, improve operational efficiencies, and manage risk effectively, underscoring the essential role of this relationship in promoting food safety and quality across the supply chain. We explain more about the difference between SQF and GFSI.


Choosing between SQF and BRC certifications depends on a company’s needs and goals. SQF offers flexibility and quality focus, suitable for safety and quality emphasis. BRC, known for detailed standards, suits firms prioritizing European food safety. Here‚Äôs more on the difference between SQF and BRC.

Comparing SQF and GFSI to determine which is better is a misconception. GFSI benchmarks food safety standards, including SQF, against global requirements. SQF is a GFSI-approved certification program tailored for various food sectors, ensuring rigorous food safety and quality standards. Companies should opt for a GFSI-benchmarked program like SQF to meet international food safety standards based on their specific needs and goals.
Validation ensures that the control measures effectively manage the hazards they are intended to control, while verification ensures that the entire system works as intended. Think of validation as “what should work,” and verification as “checking if it does work.”

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Saro Loucks

Saro Loucks is the Director of Content and a Food Safety Advisor for FoodReady. Saro is certified in HACCP and a trained SQF Practitioner. When Saro is not editing, writing, or advising new customers on what food safety goals they should pursue, she enjoys spending time with her family, baking gluten-free sourdough bread, and playing Mahjong.
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