When it comes to food safety, HACCP is a household word – so much so that many might forget that it actually stands for Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point. This management system has been part of the meat and poultry industry for decades and has helped guide food safety systems and policies and procedures in the industry since its creation.

In addition to her role as a professor in the Department of Animal Science at Texas A&M University, Kerri Gehring is also the chief executive officer of the International HAACP Alliance, a non-profit food safety organization designed to accredit HAACP training programs in the industry.

MEAT+POULTRY spoke with Gehring to learn more about the history of HACCP and the Alliance and how both have evolved through the years.

MEAT+POULTRY: What is HACCP? When was it developed, and why?

Kerri Gehring, Texas A&M UniversityKerri Gehring: HACCP is a process control system designed for food safety. It was originally started, or the credits are given for it originally being started back when NASA was going to send manned space flights and they wanted to protect the astronauts from foodborne illness. They worked with Pillsbury, the National Department of Defense and several others to develop a preventive control concept to apply to food safety. It is based on the seven principles and those principles allow individuals or companies to identify food safety hazards and then establish controls for them.

We went for many years with only a few companies using it, then over time more companies started using HACCP. From a mandatory standpoint, eventually we had both FDA and the USDA mandating HACCP. FDA was the first to mandate the program for seafood in December 1995. And then USDA mandated it for meat and poultry in July 1997.

M+P: What is the International HACCP Alliance? When was it created, and what is its purpose?

Gehring: The International HACCP Alliance is a non-profit corporation that was founded in March 1994 to help the industry prepare for mandatory HACCP. The Alliance represents multiple commodities and sectors of the food industry, and its mission is to promote public health and food safety by facilitating uniform development and implementation of HACCP/food safety programs from farm to table.

One of the primary activities of the HACCP Alliance is accrediting HACCP training programs. The board approved curricula for the following courses: Executive HACCP, Introductory HACCP, Train-the-Trainer HACCP, HACCP Inspection Model Programs (HIMP) and Advanced HACCP. The Accreditation Committee developed guidelines for an Alliance Accreditation Program that were approved by the board of directors in August 1995. The program establishes criteria for training entities to meet to receive Alliance accreditation. Each training program is reviewed by a three-person review panel. The Alliance maintains a registry of accredited programs. To date, over 150 Introductory HACCP training programs have been accredited, over 400 individuals have been approved as lead instructors, and over 85,000 individuals have received HACCP training through an Alliance accredited course.

The Alliance provides support to industry, academic and government personnel by providing scientific and technical reference materials, assisting with questions/problems, and identifying specific resources or individuals to address issues. The Alliance also maintains a “Scientific Article Database” that serves as a resource for locating scientific and technical information to support the selection of critical limits and other HACCP related decisions. This tool has been used by industry, academia and government employees to provide supporting documentation for decisions made in food safety programs.

M+P: How do companies go about developing their own HACCP program?

Gehring: Many companies have developed their own HACCP curriculum and conduct training for their employees. This allows them to focus on company specific programs and personalize the training to fit their HACCP plans. It also allows them to spread the training out over a longer time to better accommodate employee schedules. Other companies send employees to outside training programs to help the employee get a different perspective on developing and implementing food safety programs, and it allows them to network and make connections with individuals who can serve as future resources.

Any training entity can develop their training program. What the Alliance did is come up with a list of fundamental learning objectives that need to be covered in an introductory class. So, if you wanted to develop an introductory class, you would go through and design your material, plan your resources and structure your program however you want to meet those key learning requirements. You would then submit your program to the Alliance. It would be reviewed and then if it met all of those objectives, your program would be accredited at that point in time. You can teach your course to whoever your students are, whoever your participants are, and as long as you’re covering those materials that you’ve submitted, then those participants are eligible to receive the Alliance seal on their training certificate showing they have participated in an Alliance accredited course.

Companies can cutomize their programs. If I owned a meat and poultry company or any other food company and I wanted to develop my own training for my own employees, I could design it around those principles and teach my employees company specific material. If I was a consulting company and I wanted to teach classes to whoever wanted to come, I could cover those and broad general concepts and then I may customize them based on participants in the class. It’s a very flexible system and has been used in all foods and commodities across all different sectors of the industry from processing establishments to retail and restaurant.

M+P: How much has HACCP changed through the years? How has it evolved into the program it is today?

Gehring: Although HACCP is no longer considered “new,” it is definitely a dynamic system. On one hand, we have new companies and/or new employees who are just starting with learning the basic principles and how to apply them. Then, we have companies and individuals who used HACCP before it was mandated. Regardless of which one of these sides individuals or companies fall in, everyone is continuing to learn how to best develop and implement scientifically sound HACCP plans.

In general, I think the two principles that we continue to struggle with the most are Principle #1 – conduct a hazard analysis, and Principle #7 – record keeping, which includes support for decisions.

M+P: How can the principles of HACCP, or the thought process of HACCP, be applied to extraordinary situations or challenges that may arise in a processing plant? For instance, the current challenges of coronavirus.

Gehring: While HACCP was developed to focus on identifying and controlling food safety hazards, the concept could be applied to other areas. So, from a coronavirus standpoint, plants may not have consciously thought about applying the 7 Principles of HACCP when they designed and implemented changes, but many of them likely used a similar thought process. They identify areas of potential risk, established procedures to mitigate the risks, monitored their procedures, and took actions when issues arose – all basic steps of an effective process control system, which is exactly what HACCP was designed to be for food safety.