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    Why Indoor Farmers Need SQF Certification

    By Carey Allen, Vice President, Business Development & Strategy

    For a process that starts with a tiny seed, indoor farming has grown into a big business. Already topping $40 billion, the industry is projected to grow at an annual growth rate of 13.5% between now and 2030. Rising global populations, interest in fresh, healthy foods and better production technologies are setting up a long-term future for this innovative form of agriculture.

    Based on consumers interest in produce options, many new investors and entrepreneurs have entered into indoor farming that spans vertically integrated farms, hydroponic farms and aeroponic farms, among other kinds of systems. The rapid growth of the sector, along with the number of non-traditional farmers that are heading up such ventures, has led to all kinds of opportunities for success – and the potential for food safety and quality gaps. See the FMI resource, Keeping Food Safety Top of Mind When Sourcing Produce Grown Indoors. 

    Although these types of agricultural operations require much less water and land than outdoor farming, indoor growing facilities still have vulnerabilities. The critical control points are simply different from those found in traditional farms and production and packaging facilities for greens, produce and herbs. In addition, the fact that the growing process in indoor farming is typically rapid – often, a few weeks -- means that constant diligence is required.  

    “There have been some recalls,” points out Frank Schreurs, an SQF industry consultant based in London, Ontario, who has developed and conducted training programs geared to this industry. “You can eliminate other risks that are prevalent in outdoor farming, but that doesn’t mean that these facilities are free and easy from problems.” 

    Edition 9 of The SQF Food Safety Code: Primary Plant Production Provides the Framework for Indoor Farmers 

    To reduce the risk of recalls, protect their businesses and demonstrate their commitment to quality and safety to partners and customers, indoor farmers can pursue SQF certification. SQFI has updated its Food Safety Code for Primary Plant Production (Edition 9) with new modules dedicated to Good Agricultural Practices for Indoor Farming of Plant Products. The modules are in Part B of the Edition 9 Code and cover practices related to premises, equipment, cleaning and pest prevention, personal practices/hygiene, harvesting and packaging practices, waste management, storage, fertilizers and waste disposal, among other topics.   

    “The SQF Code provides a framework, or architecture, for indoor farming to manage operations well,” explains Schreurs.  

    Carey Allen, VP of Business Development for SQFI, notes the strong interest by the sector to demonstrate their robust food safety management processes: “SQF is a familiar and trusted certification program whose certificate retailers recognize as representing a supplier’s world-class system for food safety management. Some of the top controlled environment agriculture entrepreneurs have chosen SQFI’s food safety codes to establish their programs because SQFI was the pioneer in releasing the GFSI benchmarked requirements for this sector.”  

    Per the recently updated module, SQF certification can address a host of potential risks that come with indoor farming:

    Facilities and equipment:  Some indoor farming is done in newly built facilities, while other ventures are set up in repurposed shipping containers that require some extra attention from a safety and quality standpoint. Even new and sophisticated facilities with the latest automatic equipment can have safety and quality gaps such as glass shards from broken lights, pieces of plastic that can break off conveyors or areas where water can pool, or dust can collect.  

    “It’s such a moving target and all of those systems need to be reviewed from a food safety perspective. If the equipment is not cleaned properly, for example, it can harbor microbial contamination,” points out Schreurs, adding, “It’s very difficult to fix after the fact.”   

    Food Safety Code for Primary Plant Production (Edition 9) includes guidance for a wide range of building and equipment features, from ceilings, doors and ducts to conveyors, bins, utensils and transport vehicles. Maintenance and repair documentation is also crucial for indoor farming as well as outdoor farming.  

    Water management: Although indoor farms use much less water, the water in these sites is considered an input and, for SQF certification, must be monitored with a water system plan that includes a documented hazard analysis to be conducted annually.  

    “Water is like a processing aid in indoor farms – a little different, but still a significant part of the business,” notes Schreurs.   

    Personal hygiene:  Indoor farms are highly automated and have fewer employees than traditional outdoor farms. But not everything can be automated, as Schreurs points out.  

    “You still have people involved and need sanitation programs and programs for employee hygiene,” Schreurs declares.  

    The SQF module for indoor farming pinpoints areas of concern for personal hygiene, such as the wearing of jewelry, eating or drinking in the facility, handwashing and protective clothing.  

    The nature of the product:  Greens, herbs and other products grown in indoor facilities, like tomatoes and strawberries, are considered ready-to-eat foods from a regulatory standpoint. For indoor products, the SQF Codes are different from outdoor agriculture and ready-to-eat products.  See the full set of SQF Edition 9 Codes. 

    For all indoor farming operations, onsite food safety expertise and a food safety culture with management commitment are imperative. Companies that are created and expand quickly, as in the burgeoning indoor farming business, need to have people on staff who are knowledgeable about food safety and quality.  

    “They don’t know what they don’t know,” said Schreurs of indoor farmers who don’t hire experts to evaluate operations on a regular basis.  

    Having a dedicated SQF practitioner helps assure quality on a daily basis and facilitates SQF certification that is required or appreciated by retail and foodservice customers.  

    Heeding the growth in this sector and recognizing the need for education about safety and quality, SQFI offers guidance documents with information relevant to indoor farming, on topics like risk assessment, food safety culture, product sampling, inspection and analysis, training and ventilation, among others. In addition to these resources, SQFI offers online and in-person training for growers and their teams. To learn more about or to download the complete Food Safety Code: Primary Plant Production, Edition 9, visit 

    For more information regarding SQF certification, contact Carey Allen at and for more information about developing an indoor farming food safety program, contact Frank Schreurs at

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