In an interview for Veggies from Mexico, Javier Ledezma Pichardo Director of PAO Mexico explains his experience of leading this prestigious Certification Body, the benefits for companies of having a culture of food safety and continuous improvement, the main changes that the agricultural industry has experienced in the last ten years and the latest trends such as sustainability, innovation, technology, artificial intelligence, remote audits and their impact on both: auditing organizations as well as certifications bodies.
“We consider that we are “business partners” with farmers, as we join forces to ensure and promote agricultural production with safety, integrity and without health risks” – Javier Ledezma Pichardo – Director of Primus Auditing Ops Mexico.
We invite you to read the complete interview:
1. Could you share with us a bit of your professional experience?
I graduated as an Industrial Engineer from the Interdisciplinary Professional Unit of Engineering and Social and Administrative Sciences (UPIICSA) at the National Polytechnic Institute (IPN) and the core of my career was mainly developed in the pharmaceutical industry, with an experience of 26 years holding positions from Inventory Manager and Head of Logistics to Supply Chain Management in some of the most prestigious transnational companies in the industry such as Sanofi-Aventis, Stiefel-GSK, Wyeth-Pfizer, and UCB, just to mention a few. I can proudly say that I have had achievements such as team building, successfully implementing Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) such as SAP as well as the level of service to the sales area, focused on export markets such as the United States and Latin America; but also maintain mandatory and regulatory compliance of the operations under my responsibility to institutions such as the Federal Commission for Protection against Health Risks (COFEPRIS) in Mexico, FDA for the United States, the National Institute for Drug and Food Surveillance (INVIMA) in Colombia and the National Health Surveillance Agency (ANVISA) in Brazil.
I lived the experience of being audited by these institutions in good manufacturing practices (warehouses and assortment areas) and now fate brought me to be on the other side, leading this Certification Body in Mexico, an activity that I have performed in the last seven years, in which I have learned from the sector through our auditors, technical experts, customers, and business partners.
I am a very dedicated professional who is passionate about service and providing solutions to our customers. My task has been relatively easy because I have a leading brand to back me up, but above all we have the best auditors in the country and a very expert and competent technical support team, I have also had the full support of our corporate headquarters in Santa Maria, California, but above all the loyalty of more than a thousand customers who trust our work. I feel very proud and pleased to be able to serve this sector and support it in its growth.
2. Could you please explain Primus Auditing Ops and its services?
With pleasure and great pride, I can say that Primus Auditing Ops (PAO, as we are known in the industry) although it is the name we gave to be a Certification Body born in 2015 in the United States, Mexico, Chile, and Costa Rica, is not a new company in the agri-food industry. We have the backing of more than 20 years of experience since we emerged from the PrimusLabs group, which has a wide recognition in the industry as a testing laboratory and from where we had already been performing audits and giving training seminars that have been diversifying into what we are now: a certifying body of agricultural production processes and approved training center for food safety, organic and social responsibility, and sustainability trainings.
The services we currently provide are not only to “customers” but to those we consider “business partners” as we join forces to ensure and promote agricultural production with safety, integrity, and without health risks. With this culture and attitude of collaboration in service is that we approach the USDA-NOP organic audits, the Organic Products Act (LPO), GLOBALG.A.P., PrimusGFS, SMETA, Sustainability, Primus Standard, and several complements such as FSMA, Costco addendum, Nurture module, GRASP add-on, SPRING add- on, McDonald’s addendum, HACCP PAO Standard, Good Manufacturing Practices under NOM-251, second-party audits, among other services of interest to the sector.
In addition to audits, we also offer approved official training such as PrimusGFS, GLOBALG.A.P., and Organics, among other topics, which are always relevant for our business partners and even for those who wish to become auditors. In recent years we have seen the rise and awareness of caring for the environment, as well as the collaborative force that makes agricultural production possible, that is why in 2018 we strengthened our range of services withsocial responsibility programs such as SMETA, and the most recent one Sustainability program integrated this 2023, which by the way, we are the first Certification Body approved to carry out these audits that were created based on the requirement of Sysco some years ago, and as a result of a collaboration between The Sustainable Food Group, IPM Institute of America and Azzule Systems.
Earlier this year a company from Sinaloa obtained the 1st Certificate of Sustainability in Mexico in this scheme, the interest of distributors, buyers, and growers themselves has been increasing, so we do not doubt that this new wave of genuine interest in the environment, sustainability, and sustainable production joins the audits that embrace social responsibility, closing the cycle planet-resources-society for a healthier life.
3. How do you think the agricultural industry has changed in the last 10 years and how have the criteria evaluated by third-party audits evolved?
It is a fact that technological progress has not only benefited the educational or banking sphere but has permeated agricultural production with the incorporation of significant improvements in equipment and tools both for the farmer and for us, the Certification Bodies.
This progress has allowed us to make room to look at other areas so that there is equity towards continuous improvement, and I am referring to the people who make it possible to keep production moving forward. The genuine interest in caring for the operators, their families, social and economic well-being, and improving conditions have also led social evaluations and not only that, there is now an increasing awareness of the need to care for the plantet such as SMETA, EFI, Fair Trade, etc., to take off in the last decade and audits such as Sustainability, which are committed to sustainability and sustainable production, are attractive additions to the efforts of food growers, providing them with a plus in the eyes of buyers because the expectation goes beyond compliance with good manufacturing or agricultural practices, but also the commitment to be a socially responsible company with a vision for the future, not to deplete the planet’s natural resources, but to renew or maintain them.
In this regard, we, the Certification Bodies, are the first ones that must stay ahead of the curve anticipate and be prepared to fairly assess this diversity of needs that are emerging as a natural evolution of consumer demand, because if we remember the origin was to cover the need for food and once that primary objective has been achieved, new needs have been reinforced, covered and added to be solved. The same has happened with the criteria with which these evaluations are carried out, the owners of the audit schemes and the commercial consortiums have formed discussion forums to establish agreements on these new needs to be covered, which are important for each region. This is why they are becoming stronger and stronger and the level of demand for compliance is consequently higher. Growers must also constantly keep up to date with these requirements, and obtaining approval for a certification process would only be the result of continuous work well carried out in practice.
4. What do you see as the main challenges facing the agricultural industry today?
Without a doubt, climate changes continue to be one of the most significant challenges, not because there are no controlled environments for production such as greenhouses, but because not all growers can afford to make the transition from seasonal to permanent production, in addition to the fact that these changes affect the soil, temperatures that change the type of product to be handled, to name a few. But, at present, one of the detractors that have the greatest impact on the industry is the investment capacity of the growers in their efforts to supply a larger population and place their products in a worldwide market, since technology, machinery, structures, etc. are required.
Mexicans nowadays have the difficult task of finding niche markets where their products are desirable and valued, exporting has become a task that not everyone can achieve because they must have the ability to adapt to global needs, and increasing demands that make their production vulnerable, betting on new products and/or audits that allow them to achieve a certification that is required by their future buyers.
5. What new services have Primus Auditing Ops included in adapting to changes in food safety laws and market demands?
In PAO we have a culture of service intrinsically linked to the accompaniment we want to give our business partners to achieve their goal, which is to become certified to be able to sell their products in the foreign or domestic market. That is also why keeping our clients informed about regulatory changes is fundamental to succeed in gaining the confidence that we are up-to-date and prepared to carry out evaluations with objectivity and competence.
It is in this regard that for a couple of years now, we have been integrating the social audits of SEDEX SMETA, in organic we integrated the Mexican Organic Products Law (LPO), but the pandemic awakened again the boom for this service, for those who wish to export beyond our borders or those of the United States we have integrated the organic program of equivalence to Canada (COR) and the European Union (EU), soon we will be offering the one of Japan (JAS). Although undoubtedly our most recent incursion into sustainability audits has been the result of market changes, where not only the final product is important, nor complementing it with social audits, but also now an additional element is added: taking care of the environment, with a sustainable economy and properly managing soil and water. For this reason, the Sustainability Audit is integrated into our auditing programs.
On the other hand, the FDA’s FSMA Foreign Supplier Verification Program (FSVP) for importers of human and animal food requires importers to perform certain risk-based activities to verify that food imported into the United States has been produced in compliance with applicable safety standards. In this regard, we have strengthened the second-party audit service required primarily by U.S.A. distributors or importers to their suppliers to demonstrate compliance with the requirements of the FSVP program.
The audit programs we manage are constantly verified to ensure we have the necessary updates on regulatory changes and calibrated personnel to issue growers’ conformity assessment judgments.
And with this, the need arises to perform add-ons to the main audits that strengthen the certification of agricultural production processes, such as Costco, McDonald’s, FDA’s FSMA, among others.
6. What is the importance of third-party audits for agricultural companies?
The reason of existence of a Certification Body is to evaluate producers and assess the level of compliance against the regulations of the audit programs we carry out, however, it is not the only ingredient we consider. Growers go through great hardships to carry out Third Party Audits with which when obtaining a Certification- they could place their products in markets with more attractive prices that are profitable in return for the investment made.
On the other hand, the interest of the buyers and owners of the audit programs is focused on the good practices validation, making sure that the efforts and operations carried out must ensure that they will receive a product that will not be harmful to health. This is why, they have established criteria and minimum acceptable guidelines that are reflected in checklists that are applied by us, the Certification Bodies, when performing the audits. And through a score system is determined whether those practices are good and approved or not.
The obtained Certificate in the different audit programs is useful for the buyers to accept the products in their market since they ensure with the validation of the CB that the compliance with the requirements is optimal, and the product is suitable for consumption or meets the buyer’s interest depending on the type of audit performed. Hence the crucial importance of conducting Third Party audits, due to being a neutral and independent entity to the Buyer and the Producer, the impartiality of the process is ensured.
7. What is Primus Auditing Ops University and what are the main courses you offer?
Look, this is a project that we have had in our hands for some years but it’s not until now that we have seen the possibility and we are ready to offer to all the public, and especially to our customers, in a short period not only the seminars and training that we have done throughout these eight years, but it will also become a site within a platform that features the advantages of obtaining a certification of knowledge acquired either virtually or remotely and have majorings in the most relevant topics for the agri-food industry.
This proposal of constant training at everyone’s hand, at their own pace or with the ease of not having to be physically moving to attend workshops, seminars, and regulatory updates of a scheme, will be for us a reality that we will bring to our customers and the public in the near future.
8. How do you integrate new technologies such as blockchain and analytics into your services and what benefits do you see for agribusinesses?
Undoubtedly, the agri-food industry would benefit from having a blockchain data system, in an open and shared manner among all parties in the supply chain (Certification Bodies, audited agricultural companies, buyers, distributors, etc. ), which provides permanent traceability of all organizations that are audited, being able to see those results openly while – at the same time – verifying the veracity of the information of the parties involved in the evaluation processes that we carry out all Certification Bodies and historically to analyze the evolution of their efforts in safety and organic, as well as their commitment to social responsibility, sustainability, among others. However, in PAO we have not yet come to consume the type of technology such as blockchain directly because, in our business model we use third-party platforms. And, although this need for cybersecurity is not alien to our industry needs, that is why the owners of the platforms offer a minimum of public exposure of data in a way that ensures that we can reliably sustain the protection of information so as not to negatively impact the agricultural companies that are audited.
9. How important do you consider sustainability for the industry in the coming years?
For the last ten years, the importance of looking after the welfare of growers’ families has been increasingly recognized; however, recently there has been a growing awareness of the need to preserve the natural environment and to promote eco friendly agriculture because we have seen the reality of the greenhouse effect and climate change. That is why we now talk about Sustainable Agriculture, where we can see combined the improvement of environmental quality and soil health sustainably while satisfying food needs but being economically feasible while improving the lives of the producers and society. It is a win-win ecosystem since we need agriculture to survive but without a high impact on the soil that provides us with it, and while taking care of those who work to provide us with this sustenance with better conditions for our health.
Today at PAO we are the 1st Certification Body approved in America to carry out audits of the Sustainability Standard created in collaboration between the Sustainable Food Group, Azzule Systems, and PrimusLabs, which was modeled from the development of the program between IPM and Sysco, created to recognize the achievements and efforts in sustainability of growers and packers for their buyers. In 2023 we already had the first certified grower in Mexico, who is proudly from Sinaloa.
10. What are the most important changes that the PrimusGFS Scheme has experienced?
PrimusGFS is an auditing standard recognized by the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI), developed by Azzule Systems, which has been used for several years in different areas of the food industry, especially with fresh produce. It has been designed to be used on with primary production (including horticulture, grains, and pulses) and manufacturing sectors worldwide, with a HACCP-based approach that includes measures to be taken, following the 7 principles of the Codex Alimentarius HACCP. This allows growers to assess the risk of their operations and implement corrective and preventive parameters and actions to maintain their food safety programs. Continued stakeholder input allows PrimusGFS to strengthen the audit program and ensure that it meets the needs of the industry.
The focus of the changes made in version 3.2 is to continue to align with Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) requirements, U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) regulations, industry product guidelines, academic publications, etc. As well as adding clarity and strengthening certain sections of the audit, including updated scientific research metrics (e.g., buffer distances, product wash water antimicrobial metrics), corrective action closure requirements added, pesticide questions have been polished and improved, and question flow issues (e.g., harvesting practice questions) have been addressed.
11. IA in Agrifood Industry
We have all heard in recent years about AI (Artificial Intelligence), this technology that is coming to revolutionize industries for its multiple applications. However, not all of us can embrace it because applying it in the business model of our industry represents a change from the core since new skills must be acquired, and new roles must be adopted by the collaborators to use the innovation that this represents and the Certification Body itself must be restructured to offer advantages to the growers while representing greater productivity and cost reduction for us.
Another limitation that AI such as ChatGPT may have, is that this technology works based on data and will depend on the quality of the information fed by an individual; it cannot perform analysis or studies since it is a logical reasoning and only emulates that of the human being. The application of intelligent technologies will occur gradually in the agri-food industry and, specifically for us as a Certification Body, it does not offer us at the moment the answer to the need for an exhaustive evaluation and verification of compliance with the standards for certification processes since we need the auditor and technical staff to assess, make judgments with fair flexibility but above all, to have the physical presence in the evaluated sites and record the findings found in the operations. That is why in PAO we have not wanted to invest for the moment in using advanced AI because we cannot anticipate the regulations that govern us, although to take the first step in this inclusion in our processes I see that the only use we can give it at the moment is only internal, to measure the quality and improve the accuracy of our execution of services, but for the application to bring an added value to the auditee, there are still efforts to be join to be acceptable starting with the scheme ownersto growers and handlers that are audited and I do not see that happening in the short term.
12. On virtual audits
Speaking of the fact that the application of innovative technologies in the agri-food industry has not yet been explored, it is precisely the pandemic that changed the world perspective from a consumer point of view, it made the population aware of the importance of food safety. Starting from the fact that food safety is the inability to harm, during the almost two years of the pandemic by COVID-19, the most important lesson learned was the search for an excellent state of health at all levels, to take care of what we wear, especially in the spaces we share, and to minimize human approach to not spread the virus or put at risk of transmission, to avoid the cross-contamination, etc. and so many concepts and preventive measures that we already knew, and that our customers also knew for so many years and for which they prepare themselves day by day in the evaluations we perform, this preparation also includes being prepared for contingencies such as this one, although not on the scale that this virus represented globally, the impact was minor. Our industry was one of the essential ones that did not stop, even with the situation we lived through, due to the very nature and importance of the need for food, with quality, safety, and processes that take care of the final consumer.
However, even with this scenario and that we are in the era of artificial intelligence and technologically more advanced than ten years ago, the owners of the audit schemes following the position of the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) from food safety to organic did not conceive acceptable for fully virtual audits to be carried out, although it is a great achievement and advantage that partially remote audits were accepted, through the use of communication, visual and technological tools to conduct document reviews and reduce the time spent touring the facilities of growers and handlers as part of the on-site verification of production activities and validate compliance with relevant regulations and good operational practices. Virtual audits have gained more and more ground and I am sure that it will not be long before we can not only use drones to inspect production sites, video cameras in teleconferences, digital signature, and mobile programs, but that laws and scheme owners accept that the way to evaluate does not have to be only through the human eye if we can make use of tools that help to further refine the data and detect deviations in the processes for continuous improvement for a better quality product and food safety, virtual audits are here to stay.