QTrade Teas & Herbs Achieves SQF/GFSI Certification, Shares Insights

QtradesmWorld Tea News chats with Ron Eng, vice president of quality assurance at QTrade Teas & Herbs, to learn about the organization’s major certification success and what it means for the tea industry.

Question: Congratulations on QTrade receiving its SQF Institute Certification. That’s a major accomplishment. For those who don’t know, what is this certification?

Answer: Thank you. We are quite pleased. This is an important milestone for our business and customers, as well as the industry. Essentially, SQF certification assures buyers and customers that food – or tea, in this instance – has been produced, processed and handled according to the highest standards.

SQF Certification is recognized by the Global Food Safety Initiative, which focuses on the improvement of food safety management systems for the delivery of safe food to consumers worldwide.

In our case, QTrade’s 70,000 sq. ft. facility and processes in Cerritos, Calif. were certified.

Q: What processes are certified exactly?

A: SQF certificates provide a verifiable paper trail, ensuring that they have the processes in place and have implemented all applicable SQF guidelines for effectively managing food safety.

QTrade is an early adopter, one of the first of the U.S.’s 90 tea blenders to go through this certification process. And already we’re getting positive feedback from our customers and interest from new customers, as a result.

Q: Why is certification a major accomplishment for QTrade?

A: Because the most significant reform of U.S. food supply in 70 years is underway and it will affect tea importers, who will absorb much greater responsibility for overall food safety – including much closer documentation and review of supplier conduct related to managing food hazards.

Q: Why will major tea brands, foodservice and bottled drink brands seek out tea blenders Ron Engthat have this certification?

A: First off, these types of companies – especially the major brands – are going to require this level of commitment as well as the SQF/GFSI Certification.

Secondly, while agricultural products like processed tea and herbs pose few threats to public health, the variety and large number of ingredients that are added to tea require vigilance.

For example, QTrade encounters all the variables of natural products grown on many plantations and gathered from the world’s forests and jungles – with each crop the result of unique weather patterns, soil, harvesting and processing conditions.

The share of tropical products – coffee, cocoa, tea and spices – imported to the United States is nearly 100 percent since domestic production is close to zero. This means importers like QTrade Teas & Herbs deal almost exclusively with foreign suppliers, usually relying heavily on documentation and testing offered by the supplier.

So going through the process of certification is highly beneficial to ensure the proper import measures, documentation and production steps are in place.

Q: Is it just major tea brands and beverage companies that are going to look for tea blenders that are certified?

A: Pressures to elevate quality programs are not solely the result of changing governmental regulation and the requirements of big beverage and tea brands. Retail brands also rely on certified partners to mitigate risk of product recalls.

Copyright QTrade Teas & Herbs

Copyright QTrade Teas & Herbs

Q: Some tea blenders may say, “Why get certified?” since tea is not a high-risk food. What is your response?

A: Indeed, tea is not a high-risk food. People traditionally consume the liquor not the leaf through immersion in boiling water, but the combination of tea with fruits, nuts, spices and herbs requires the same diligence as any food processor.

In the tea industry, the greatest source of risk is in the form of microbiological and chemical contamination, as well as the proper handling of allergens.

Essentially, as new government rules and regulations strengthen assurances that imported foods meet the same safety standards as food produced domestically, accountability shifts to importers like QTrade and others in the tea industry.

Reputable suppliers recognize that food safety is a priority, so we’re glad we are leading the industry in this area.

Q: Was the certification process challenging?

A: A couple of years ago, our choice was whether to invest and try to stay ahead of the curve, or to wait until government more fully regulates how we manage quality. We decided to stay ahead of the curve and act quickly, investing heavily in upgrading the talents of our quality assurance staff, procedures and policies.

And in preparation for the SQF audits and certification process, we hired a consultant well over a year ago to produce a gap audit. The gap analysis determined areas to address and helped prioritize our efforts. Even with a highly skilled, internal quality team in place, the gap audit revealed several areas that not only improved overall quality, but also allowed for enhanced workflow and better segregation of tasks and responsibilities.

Once the gap audit was completed, we identified several other areas that needed improvement, so we didn’t rely on the gap audit alone to outline what needed to be done. Easily forgotten by the audit process is the fact that internal quality teams will always be more aware of policy weaknesses and standards than a consultant offering an expert opinion during the course of a short series of visits.

Q: Thank you, Ron, for your time and insights on this certification. Any final thoughts?

A: Thank you, it was my pleasure.

Overall, QTrade’s supply chain is anchored on five continents, and our task is to ensure the safety of imported ingredients for all of our many customers and their customers. So this certification demonstrates QTrade’s strong commitment in that area.

We believe that all North American tea blenders must take responsibility for quality, as it’s all too easy to unwisely assign responsibility blindly to international suppliers.

Editor’s Note: QTrade Teas & Herbs – which is exhibiting at the upcoming World Tea Expo, May 29 – 31 in Long Beach, Calif. – is the largest supplier of certified organic tea in North America. They employ 46 employees who blend up to 40,000 pounds of tea a day, and pack 10,000 food service iced teas cases and 10,000 pyramid tea bags in two shifts. The company is part of the $1 billion U.S.-based tea processing industry. See QTradeTeas.com.