A Complete Guide to HACCP Principles and Protocol

When NASA was preparing for the first manned space missions, they recognized that the possibility of foodborne illness in space was a serious threat to their success. They applied engineering concepts to food science, and from their research, HACCP protocols were born.

Nearly sixty years later, the HACCP process has become critical to the safety and reliability of packaged foods around the world.

What is HACCP?

HACCP stands for Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point. It's a systemic approach to identifying, evaluating, and managing food safety hazards. Its strength is that it is a universal problem-solving tool – just as effective on the farm or in the slaughterhouse as it is in a food processing factory or distribution hub. It's even helpful in food service and retail!

The HACCP process is a critical piece of a comprehensive food safety program, but it needs to be used in conjunction with hygiene, sanitation, inspection, tracing, and recall programs for maximum effectiveness.

The advantage of adding HACCP to the mix is that it's forward-thinking and preventative – you can avoid the negative publicity and expense of a food recall through diligence to HACCP methods.

Why Does HACCP Exist?

By the time NASA (with help from Pillsbury and U.S. Army Laboratories) invented HACCP for food safety, inspection-based food safety systems and food recalls existed. But these are both reactive systems – they only catch potential food safety problems after the job is done.

Shortly after their collaboration with NASA, Pillsbury began applying HACCP to their earth-bound food production after a recall due to glass found in cereal. Their program was a success, which led to the 1974 adoption of HACCP principles by FDA canned goods inspectors. HACCP protocols gained wider traction in the 1990s after a series of E coli outbreaks in meat.

In August 1997, the modern HACCP principles were born. An advisory group known as The National Advisory Committee on Microbiological Criteria for Food established seven principles within HACCP to ensure food safety from harvest through and including consumption.

Regulatory adoption of HACCP programs spread after that because the HACCP process provided a robust, preventative framework for food safety. Under 9 CFR 417 (for the USDA) and 21 CFR 120 (for the FDA, HACCP programs are required for riskier food products, including meat, juice, and seafood.

With the passing of the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011, nearly all facilities that manufacture, process, pack, distribute, receive, hold, or import food must conduct Hazard Analysis and Risk-Based Preventative Control (HARPC), an approach that borrows heavily from the concepts of HACCP.

What Are the Seven Principles Of HACCP?

The seven principles of HACCP include:  

  1. Conducting a Hazard Analysis
  2. Determining Critical Control Points
  3. Establishing Critical Limits
  4. Establishing Monitoring Procedures
  5. Establishing Corrective Actions
  6. Establishing Recordkeeping and Documentation Procedures
  7. Establishing Verification Procedures

These principles can also be viewed as different steps in the HACCP process since it makes sense to work through them in order.

So, what is the first HACCP step?

HACCP Principle 1: Conduct A Hazard Analysis

The first step in preventing any food safety hazard is to identify where and how a hazard might crop up. The analysis is most effective when it's conducted by someone with extensive experience.

For a thorough hazard analysis, you need to start by documenting all the processes, equipment, and ingredients that go into your operation. That will help you determine all the ways that food could become contaminated.

Hazards include any agent that can cause injury or illness to the consumer. They can be biological (like bacteria), physical (like broken glass), or chemical (like heavy metals).

Next, you assess the potential severity and likelihood of each hazard and document your team's reasoning in detail. Any significant hazards will need a control plan.

You can't just base your hazard analysis on how things are "supposed to work." You need to confirm that your understanding of all the steps matches what actually happens on the ground.

HACCP Principle 2: Determine Critical Control Points (CCP)

Next, you'll identify potential control measures and the most effective time to apply them.

A critical control point (CCP) is a point in your process where you can apply a safety measure to prevent, eliminate, or reduce the hazard to an acceptable level. Often, a decision tree is used to pinpoint the best CCPs.

Some operational stages commonly serve as critical control points. For example, choosing reputable suppliers and certifying deliveries can reduce the likelihood of many different hazards. Any point in food processing that involves a change in temperature is critical for biological hazards.

The control measure you'll apply at a particular CCP varies based on the hazard you're targeting. For example, time and temperature control, pasteurization, and acid rinses are useful for biological contaminants. For chemical contaminants, you might test ingredients for residue and store cleaning products separately from food. Testing, metal detection, pest control, and enforcing employee hygiene on the production floor can prevent or eliminate physical contaminants.

The number of critical control points any single operation needs will vary. In some cases, a single CCP may control multiple hazards. In other cases, a single hazard may need multiple CCPs.

HACCP Principle 3: Establish Critical Limits

For each CCP, you need to set at least one critical limit (CL) – a reliably measurable minimum or maximum value to which some parameter is controlled.

This could be the temperature above or below which food is held or the maximum amount of a contaminant that will be safe to the consumer.

The chosen value needs to be one that leads to the prevention, elimination, or reduction of the hazard to an acceptable level. It may be determined by regulatory guidelines, expert opinions, or in-house research.

HACCP Principle 4: Establish Monitoring Procedures

Critical control points and critical limits mean nothing if you don't monitor values regularly and ensure they remain within safe limits. Devising a system for measuring and recording values is essential to the success of an HACCP program.

If at all possible, you want a continuous method of measurement. When continuous monitoring isn't feasible, you need to check critical limits often enough to ensure control. Ideally, monitoring will allow corrective action to happen before critical limits are violated to prevent waste.

Monitoring procedures need to include:

  • What instruments to use
  • How to take the measurement
  • How often to measure during production
  • Who will be responsible for the measurement
  • What value should trigger corrective action
  • How monitoring will be documented
  • Who will supervise monitoring to ensure compliance

If the measurements and monitoring are conducted through automation, you also need to decide how often a manual measurement or calibration should be performed to ensure the sensors are working correctly.

HACCP Principle 5: Establish Corrective Actions

For each CCP, you need predetermined, written plans for how to deal with any deviation from critical limits. This is known as a corrective action plan.

Any corrective action plan should include both immediate corrective actions and preventative corrective actions.

An immediate corrective action fixes the problem and prevents potentially hazardous food from entering the supply chain. For example, you might need to turn away a delivery if the temperature is in question. You might need to throw out food if a refrigeration unit is down for four hours or more.

Sometimes fixing the problem and diverting unsafe food are separate steps. If a faulty piece of equipment causes a batch of unsafe food, you may need to dispose of existing product and fix the equipment before production resumes. Both corrective actions would be "immediate."

Preventative corrective actions focus on identifying the root cause of the deviation and taking steps to keep it from happening again. Sometimes this might mean revising HACCP procedures altogether.

HACCP Principle 6: Establish Recordkeeping and Documentation Procedures

As a wise man once said, "It isn't science unless you write it down." The same is true of regulatory compliance.

Keeping comprehensive records allows you to:

  • Ensure and verify employee compliance with protocols
  • Prove how a food product was produced safely to a regulatory body
  • analyze which CCPs cause problems and improve your system

There are three main categories of documentation you should maintain under HACCP protocol.

First, you've got high-level prescriptive HACCP documents. This includes any of the documents we mentioned above: the hazard analysis, CCP and CL justifications, monitoring procedures, and corrective action plans. This big-picture category will also include things like HACCP team procedures and profiles, product descriptions, flow diagrams, and more.

These should be comprehensive living documents that are updated as adjustments to HACCP protocol are made.

Next, you've got day-to-day documentation of how protocols are executed. Any kind of operational record that guides employee compliance and/or logs a specific compliance event is included here: job-specific sign-off sheets, CL logs, training records, reports on corrective action events, and more.

These should be designed to discourage shortcuts in compliance, something made much easier by technology. For example, you can use systems that record the real time and location of various sign-offs to ensure they're not retroactively filled in at once.

Regulatory agencies often require you to keep daily records for a specific period of time.

Finally, you need documentation about your documentation. This includes procedures for documenting events, like the required pieces of information, who is responsible for creating each type of record, and how promptly documentation must be done. You also need record-keeping procedures, like how long each type of record should be kept, where and how, who has access to records, and who is responsible for maintenance.

HACCP Principle 7: Establish Verification Procedures

Finally, once HACCP protocols are in use, you need to validate their effectiveness to make sure they're being followed, preventing the identified hazards, and being updated and maintained. Naturally, verification procedures and events should also be documented.

You should consider three different types or timelines for verification:

  • Initial validation, to ensure your HACCP plan does what it's intended to do
  • Ongoing or regular verification, to ensure the HACCP plan is being executed as intended
  • Periodic reassessment, to determine if any changes are needed to make the HACCP plan more effective

Written verification procedures should specify how and when each type of verification should occur.

The verification protocol will depend on what you're validating at any given time. Verifying the effectiveness of an HACCP protocol might involve testing the final product to ensure it's within critical limits. Checking that everyone complies with the plan might require a series of different auditing and inspection techniques, from top to bottom. Reassessment might involve reviewing corrective action reports and operational records for certain patterns, as well as soliciting employee feedback.

Ready to Learn More?

Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point principles are complex problem-solving tools. This means a single blog article is the tip of the veritable iceberg.

For a more in-depth exploration of these HACCP steps, check out our online self-paced course, Food Safety HACCP for Retail Establishments. It's designed specifically for food service facilities like restaurants, cafeterias, grocery stores, and similar businesses. You don't have to wade through complex HACCP plans meant for industrial food production. With our course, you'll only get the HACCP training that directly applies to your job, so you can get on with business!

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