How Do Small Suppliers Fit Into Our Supplier Approval Program?

We see that each individual food business is faced with growing compliance expectations and each must find a way to manage that risk throughout its entire supply chain. As an industry, there’s been a general trend toward suppliers meeting the GFSI food safety benchmark, as it demonstrates a level of understanding of food safety risk. Asking small suppliers to pass a third-party audit, particularly to a GFSI recognized standard, can be overwhelming and simply not realistic. We are asking these small suppliers to lift a weight that is too heavy, without having the training and time to cultivate a culture to build up strength.

As an industry we often find ourselves purchasing from suppliers that we know cannot meet the same food safety standards as the rest of our suppliers – but we need them. These enterprising suppliers are innovative and make unique products, and they help our business. They help us meet claims for local or organic, or have a story that we want to share and consumers want to hear.

In working with food supplier management programs for many years, and recently spending some time visiting and engaging with many small, local or regional suppliers, I am really encouraged by the trends I see. There are excellent examples of large multinational companies heavily investing resources and mentoring their small suppliers to a higher standard of food safety – a win-win for both the buyer and the supplier. We are proud to work alongside some of these food industry leaders.  

Working with suppliers that are still developing their food safety programs is an immense opportunity for knowledge-sharing.  In this spirit, we take this opportunity to share some strategies that we have seen to be successful in engaging small suppliers, and could be adapted in your programs:

  • Clearly define a small supplier and what products or ingredients can be purchased from small suppliers without creating a food safety risk for your business.
  • Is the supplier committed to change? The journey to higher levels of food safety is a partnership and should be viewed this way by both parties. 
  • If a questionnaire is part of your on-boarding process it may be better to review this together with your small supplier over a phone call. You will gain a better understanding of the food safety knowledge they have.
  • What is in it for them? The supplier needs to believe this is the right investment of time and resources for their business.
  • Suggest programs that will be a priority for the supplier to focus on, e.g. traceability or sanitation. Clearly identify the minimum expectations – show examples of documents and complete records!
  • Create a realistic next step (e.g. Global Markets Assessment or GMP audit) and set a representative timeline. It is common for a food safety system to take many months to be developed and implemented well.
  • Decide how will you support them through this journey, and plan to check in regularly.

This is as a wonderful chance for our industry to teach these small, local and regional suppliers, and to become mentors. Often, they really do not know what is being asked of them. I want to encourage those in this position to explain and demonstrate food safety and quality compliance. It helps the entire food industry.

Author: Renata McGuire is an Associate Manager, Food Safety for the consulting team at NSF providing services that help companies manage the food safety and quality of their supply chain. You can reach her at

This post is one in a series on managing the quality and food safety of a supply chain as a manufacturer, restaurant brand or foodservice company.

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