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SQF Audit Series: An Overview

UpKeep’s SQF Audit series is a collection of easy-to-use checklists your organization can utilize during your Safe Quality Food (SQF) audit journey.
You can find the SQF Audit Food Safety checklists here, and the SQF Audit Food Quality checklist here.

What’s Ahead?

A General Overview of Safe Quality Food Audits

The Safe Quality Food (SQF) audit is a general food safety standard to ensure best practices for handling and manufacturing food and beverages. It is based on the HACCP system which is one of the most accepted standards in the industry. SQF offers four different types of audits and associated certifications, which certification you aim for, is based on the goals of your business and what type of food safety standards you currently have in place (if any).

Who is an SQF Audit for?

SQF audits are targeted to food and beverage manufacturing facilities. In many large facilities, ensuring compliance is primarily driven by a Quality and/or Compliance Manager; however, the certification process itself is cross-functional because it requires buy-in and support from individuals and teams across the company. In smaller facilities, or one where there is no Quality and/or Compliance Manager, this information will be important to a Facility Manager or other designated personnel.

Why is an SQF Audit important?

SQF certification is one of the gold standard compliance metrics within the food and beverage manufacturing space. SQF audits benefit manufacturers by ensuring rigorous standards are met during production. For buyers, an SQF certification serves as a stamp of approval providing confidence that the manufacturer is focused on hazard protocols, risk assessment, and preventive strategies.

What is included in the SQF audit?

Each SQF audit covers a broad range of topics including management training, crisis prevention to equipment handling and sanitation. An SQF auditor will likely spend several days reviewing historical data and documentation, and conducting a visual walk-through of the plant, as well as interviewing plant employees.

The specific components of an SQF audit depend on which type of SQF certification the business is seeking. The three levels of SQF certification are:

  • SQF Food Safety Fundamentals
  • SQF Food Safety Code
  • SQF Quality Code

How often does an SQF audit occur?

The cadence of an SQF audit is dependent on which program the business is following and, ultimately, which certification is being sought.

This chart shows the different types of SQF codes a business can be certified for and the Food Sector Categories relevant to each. You’ll see this chart reappear on each SQF Audit page with a yellow box surrounding the area that page is addressing.

How do I prepare for SQF Audits?

  1. Identify a designated SQF Practitioner within your business to read and understand the latest SQF Code appropriate to your segment in the food supply chain.
  2. Register in the SQF database.
  3. Identify which of the SQF certifications your business is seeking.
  4. Develop and establish a HACCP-based food safety plan to mitigate food safety and quality hazards. A strong foundation here lays the groundwork for the particular certification you are seeking.
  5. Establish food safety monitoring through consistent internal audits and maintain a record of results.
  6. Outline your organization’s competencies and determine training requirements for SQF certification based on the audit results.
  7. Ensure competency needs are met and that all parties involved are kept in the loop.
  8. Partner with a third-party auditor for SQF certification.

How can I be ‘Audit Ready’ at all times?

  • Avoid using paper and pencil for documentation. Technology is your friend here!
  • Move to a digital system to prevent lost records. This also makes the auditor’s life easier and allows them to more easily refer back and review prior work.
  • Conduct your own mini internal compliance audits on a weekly basis. Enforce required fields and ensure that SOP are clearly posted and fully understood. If in doubt, explain and clarify.

Common Minor SQF Audit Infractions

While it’s important to get as high a score as possible on all areas of the audit, infractions will happen. Minor infractions are less impactful to the overall audit score than major infractions, and are common errors that can trip up even the most well prepared business.  The top 5 most common minor SQF infractions are noted below along with their accompanying reference number within The SQF Code, Edition 8.1.

  1. Food Defense (
    Challenge Test and Plan Review Annually
  2. Equipment, Utensils & Protective Clothing (
    Equipment and Utensil Condition
  3. Staff Engaged In Food Handling (
    Product Handling, Off Floor, Traffic, Waste, Eating
  4. Food Safety Plan (
    Flow Diagram Completely and FST Verification
  5. Cleaning and Sanitation (
    Program, Procedures and Effectiveness Verification

What to do if you’ve failed an audit?

  • Most audit infractions are minor and can be addressed with a prompt remediation.
  • Follow up with your auditor on action plans shortly after your SQF audit and work closely with your in-house SQF Practitioner to ensure follow through with that plan.

SQF Audit Info and Checklists To Prepare Your Facility

SQF Fundamentals Program

Checklists for the SQF Audit Fundamentals.

Basic certification is an entry-level certification focusing heavily on implementation of the Code requirements and less on documentation.

Intermediate is for those who’ve completed the Basic certification, or already have a Food Safety Program in place. For the Intermediate Code, there is an introduction to documentation, but implementation is still the major focus.

SQF Edition 8.1 (Advanced) – Food Safety

Comparing Fundamentals vs Advanced, various sections within 8.1, and more.

The components of the audit itself will vary based on what food sector category your business falls into. Those Food Sector Categories (FSC) include:

Primary Production
Storage and Distribution
Manufacture of Food Packaging and Food Retail

SQF Edition 8.1 (Advanced) – Food Quality

Understanding use cases for SQF Quality Code, who it applies to, and other details.
Food Quality is the ‘icing on the cake’ of a business’s SQF journey. It is not a requirement to complete, but does result in an additional certification.

Examples of Completed Audits

Attribution: The resources presented here were sourced from the SQF Institute. For additional reading, tools and context please visit them here.