HACCP plan

What is the difference between the HACCP decision tree and hazard matrix?

The HACCP decision tree and risk assessment matrix are used to analyze hazards in your food manufacturing process for ...

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  • The HACCP decision tree and risk assessment matrix are used to analyze hazards in your food manufacturing process for the establishment of critical control points.
  • Critical control points are any process in your food operations line that can be applied with control measures to eliminate identified hazards for the production of wholesome food.
  • Digital solutions such as FoodDocs can help you establish critical control points using a built-in hazard assessment matrix that automatically evaluates all hazards in your operations for your HACCP plan.

A key element in the applications of food safety management systems in the food industry is to be able to identify and analyze hazards. These hazards cause foodborne illnesses to consumers and may negatively affect food manufacturing companies. As a preventive approach to food safety, the HACCP system was designed to establish critical control points (CCPs) in addition to hygiene practices to prevent these hazards from occurring further down your operation steps. The verification of these CCPs assistance with tools such as the HACCP decision tree and hazard matrix. 

hazard matrix


The successful implementation of critical control points requires undivided attention from the manufacturer to avoid a critical limit deviation of any standards to make food safer and avoid any consumer illness. Because of the focus that food companies must dedicate to CCPs, these practices must be carefully considered. Some steps are maintained as safe through prerequisite food hygiene requirements, whereas some need more control processes and therefore need further examination.

Learn which is the best way to identify and establish CCPs to create a competent food factory and protect your intended consumers. Additionally, learn the best alternative to using a decision tree or a risk matrix in establishing CCPs with FoodDocs. Make this task easier without the need to consider all questions and numbers. Read until the end and learn this best method!


What is a HACCP decision tree?

A HACCP decision tree is a tool used to determine which among your food processing operations are considered as a critical control point (CCP) or not to produce safe food products. Any controllable processing step of your whole food chain where preventive measures can be applied for the elimination of hazards can be considered as a CCP. Some examples of CCPs may include correct cooking temperature, proper conditions of storage, monitoring the integrity of packaging material, and others.  A HACCP decision tree helps you decide whether a process step requires the critical limit establishment and a focused set of monitoring procedures for the control of food safety.

Figure 1. Example of a decision tree to identify critical control points (CCPs). The questions shall be answered in sequence.  

haccp decision tree

A decision tree in HACCP consists of a set of questions designed to arrive at conclusions of whether a step is a CCP or not. The questions involved in a HACCP decision tree are always answerable by a yes or no. It is used to support the judgment of a HACCP team when identifying CCPs. A HACCP decision tree is used specifically for each type of hazard in the context of food production.  It is considered a vital part of your HACCP plan documentation and implementation.

The standard decision tree developed by the Codex Alimentarius Commission, a group developed to establish international guidelines for food control systems for the protection of public health, is used as the basis for most decision trees. To protect your intended consumers, it is important to conduct all stages of hazard analysis and perform adequate actions such as the implementation of CCPs to control them.


When do you need a HACCP decision tree? 

The most obvious time to use a HACCP decision tree is during the conceptualization of your HACCP plan. After careful consideration of food safety hazards in your business, this tool is used for the establishment of critical control points before critical limit determination. To be able to use a process decision tree approach, your team must come up with a comprehensive block type flow diagram of the processes of your whole food chain and have identified the most probable food safety hazards to occur in your processing for the protection of your consumer. 

Your HACCP team is tasked to identify all food safety risks for a specific product, designate which operation are they most likely to occur, and which step is capable of controlling this hazard. Operation steps such as the temperature control during the cooking process, inspection upon receiving of raw materials, and hazard control during storage can be considered as CCPs and passed through a decision tree.  Using an incorrectly structured decision tree can lead to inaccurately identified CCPs and unnecessary control standards. The HACCP decision tree is used to separate CCPs from other preventive measures such as prerequisite programs, control points, and others. The most common mistake is when new food companies often identify too many steps as CCPs.

All food operations are suggested to be subjected through a decision tree to check whether they are CCP or not. With certain considerations on food hygiene and safety prerequisite programs, some operations steps can be ruled out as CCPs.


food safety plan builder


Important considerations when using a decision tree HACCP

Choosing whether to use a decision tree in HACCP-making is based on the decision of your team. Critical control point establishments can be done based on existing literature and similar cases, but a decision tree can help in this process. Here are a few considerations you need to know when using this tool:

  • A decision tree in HACCP is used when logical reasoning for the establishment of CCP is required. The questions can serve as justification for your decision.
  • A decision tree is not needed when prerequisite food hygiene requirements or basic principles of good manufacturing practices can control the food safety hazard.
  • A HACCP decision tree can address more than one hazard in the process.
  • Hazards can be regulated through a combination of control measures.
  • A decision tree must be flexible.
  • A specific HACCP decision tree is not universal. Some adjustments and additional elements may need to be applied to fit the nature of your processing.


What is a hazard matrix?

A hazard or risk matrix is a visualization tool that is used to determine the likelihood of occurrence and degree of damage that a hazard can cause. This matrix is made up of rows usually depicting the extent of damage that risks can cause and columns for the likelihood of occurrence. These elements can be interchanged in terms of position.

A hazard matrix is used to evaluate a hazard. In turn, this tool can be used by your HACCP team to determine which operation can be considered as a CCP or which ones can be solved through simple prerequisite programs such as basic conditions and sanitary design principles.


Figure 2. Example of risk assessment matrix.

decision tree haccp

A hazard matrix offers several advantages such as the following:

  • Rates each hazard in terms of the damage they can cause, allowing accurate identification of hazards and which ones to prioritize
  • Can be executed with minimal applications.
  • Creates a visual yet comprehensive explanation of the risk situation.
  • Can be easily understood even without experience in food safety assessment.

The extensiveness of a hazard matrix can be adjusted depending on the level of how specific does the team wants to evaluate the hazards. Depending on the targeted outcome, all mandatory elements can be expanded such as the risk level either ranging from level 1 to 3 or a range of level 1 to 5. 

Labeling and the extent of these variables can greatly vary depending on the company using the hazard matrix. Here is a list of the likelihood variables commonly used for an extensive HACCP risk assessment matrix:

  1. Rare - hazards almost do not occur.
  2. Unlikely - hazards are unlikely to occur but possible.
  3. Possible - hazards can occur during operations.
  4. Likely - hazards will occur after a while.
  5. Almost certain - hazards are expected to occur.

These frequency variables are plotted against different levels of severity that each hazard can cause if left uncontrolled. The levels are labeled as follows or depending on the company using the hazard risk assessment matrix:

  1. Insignificant - the hazard does not have an insignificant effect on consumer safety. This classification may include a very small and insignificant physical hazard such as very small pieces of rocks or other small contaminants in food. 
  2. Minor - the hazard can cause mild illnesses or injuries but are not a major concern and can be controlled through sanitary conditions and biological risk assessments.
  3. Moderate - the hazard can potentially cause serious food safety issues. 
  4. Major - the hazard will cause serious food safety issues. These hazards include common enteric pathogens that can cause serious consumer illness but can be easily treated.
  5. Catastrophic - the potential hazards can cause an outbreak with the possibility of death and very serious illness. An example of this level would be the contamination of Clostridium botulinum in low-acid canned foods and any other dangerous enteric pathogen. This hazard can be detected through microbiological testing and visual inspection. If undetected, this hazard can cause an outbreak and potentially kill consumers.

Using a matrix with more variables has its advantages and disadvantages in the food manufacturing sector. On the one hand, a hazard matrix with a narrow cross-section would be too small to describe situations and properly categorize potential hazards, but it will be easy to understand by everyone. On the other hand, a hazard matrix with more variables would clearly describe how important a specific risk is as well as the degree of control needed but it may be too complex for other team members. Choosing the number of variables for your hazard matrix would depend on the expertise and preference of your HACCP food safety team.


How does a HACCP decision tree differ from a hazard matrix?

Both the HACCP decision tree and the hazard matrix can be used for the implementation of critical control points. They are both useful tools for the successful implementation of food safety controls for potential hazards and are considered parts of the management commitment to food safety. They enable better CCP application by food business operators. Despite this, their approaches are unique when compared with each other. 

Here are some evident differences between the two approaches:

The decision tree and risk assessment matrix generally differ in their approaches to establishing CCPs. A decision tree evaluates specific steps based on specific hazards they can control, whereas a risk assessment matrix evaluates hazards and determines what level of operations they need. 

HACCP Decision Tree Hazard/ Risk Assessment Matrix
Qualitative evaluation. Uses questions to evaluate steps. Quantitative evaluation. Uses numerical scales to evaluate risks.
Evaluates operation steps for suitability of CCP Evaluates specific hazards or risks and not the operation itself
Can be subjective Objective approach
Tells whether an operation is a CCP or not Designates level of operation to a hazard (CCP, CP, PRP, oPRP)


Creating a decision tree for the HACCP food safety program

The most basic decision tree as released by the Codex HACCP consists of 4 or 5 different questions. These questions are answerable by a yes or a no and will lead to a decision of whether a step can be considered as a CCP or not for the production of wholesome food. The use of a decision tree comes after hazard identification and analysis in your process operations.

Once hazard identification and their analysis are done, your team is tasked to apply the decision tree in every operation step of your HACCP flow chart from receiving up to the delivery of your finished product. Steps that have been identified to be focal points for the occurrence of hazards must be prioritized. 

Your HACCP team is required to answer questions in order. Here are examples of questions commonly used in a decision tree:

1. Is there a hazard present in this step that is sufficiently likely to occur to require a control measure?

  • In this step, hazards in this step that have been evaluated to have a rare likelihood of occurrence would mean that the step is not a CCP.
  • Answering Yes to the question takes you to the next one.

2. Is a control measure present for the hazard at this step?

  • If the answer to main question #2 is Yes, then you are required to proceed to the next step.
  • Answering No to this question will prompt your HACCP team to an additional question "Is the control necessary for safety?" If the control is not essential to limit the hazard, then the step is not a CCP. If the answer is Yes, a justification for modifying the step to control the hazard must be applied.

3. Is this control measure necessary to eliminate or reduce the hazard to an acceptable level (or its likelihood of occurrence)?

  • If the answer is Yes to this question, then the step can be considered as a CCP.
  • In some decision trees, this step may be the final one if answered with a No. This answer will merit the operation process, not a CCP. However, more detailed decision trees will lead you to another question.

4. Does the hazard have the likelihood to occur at dangerous levels and produce unsafe food?

  • Answering No would indicate that the step is not a CCP and end the decision process.
  • If the answer is Yes, the last question must be answered.

5. Is there a subsequent step present in the whole manufacturing process that can eliminate the hazard or reduce its likelihood of occurrence?

  • If your team's answer is Yes, then the step is not a CCP. A justification of which step further down the process line will control the hazard. 
  • If the answer of your team is a No, then the step is considered as a CCP.

The extensiveness of a decision tree to be used depends on the requirements of food manufacturing companies or authorities in food safety agencies. The more questions involved, the more complicated the decision tree gets. Despite this fact, the justification for establishing a CCP becomes more detailed. After the implementation of a CCP, the next steps include critical limit determination and the establishment of corrective actions and monitoring procedures.


Creating a HACCP risk assessment matrix

The first step in establishing a risk assessment matrix is deciding the complexity of your matrix. That is whether to use more or less variable scale points for the hazard's likelihood of occurrence and the damage it can cause. After deciding the type of matrix to use, you can follow these definitive steps:

  1. List all process steps, including the acquisition of materials from suppliers, storage, up to delivery for a finished product.
  2. Identify all potential food safety hazards and risks for each step. All potential hazards must be carefully identified and listed for further hazard analysis for the assurance of food safety. Some common hazards related to receiving raw materials would be the presence of contaminants or non-compliance with standard analyses.
  3. The next step is to identify the likelihood of occurrence of each hazard. Choose from the previously mentioned range and assign numerical values for each level such as 1 to 5; 1 being the rarest likelihood, and 5 as almost certain.
  4. List down the degree of damage each hazard is most likely to cause. These values can be designated with alphabets depending on your preference.
  5. Plot the ratings into the hazard matrix and determine the potential severity of each hazard. Depending on your company's discretion and international standards, thresholds can be set to determine the appropriate action for each risk.

Risk levels are the main determinant of what food safety control and preventive measures need to be used to eliminate a hazard or at least reduce it to an acceptable level. Action criteria for these risks can be prerequisite programs, critical points, operational prerequisite programs, and critical control points.


Digital solution to establishing your CCP operations

Did using a decision tree or a risk assessment matrix seem like a lot of work for you? If you felt like you would get confused with all the questions from a decision tree or all the levels from a risk assessment matrix, then we've got just the solution for you!

One of our most recent innovations at FoodDocs is establishing a hazard risk assessment matrix for you. We have designed a risk matrix that you can refer to for establishing your critical control points. As you answer the questions about your food business, our machine-learned system generates a HACCP plan for you. Our system suggests which process steps in your food chain are considered as CCPs. Our suggestions are based on previous information provided by our customers in the same industry as your food business as well as knowledge from our food safety experts. Each of your process steps will be given a predetermined level of likelihood and severity and a corresponding control action.


Figure 3. FoodDocs food safety risk assessment matrix

hazard matrix

With the globalization of the food industry at hand, faster, smarter, and more convenient solutions to making your HACCP food safety plan have become even more essential. These features are what make FoodDocs the best and only digital solution to your food safety requirements. Our built-in HACCP builder that was designed by food safety professionals can complete all the necessary documents for a comprehensive HACCP plan and its successful implementation.

Our system tailors a HACCP plan that is fit for your food business by answering a few basic questions about your company. We automatically apply every HACCP principle to your answers and generate a food safety plan for you. This downloadable HACCP plan will have a complete identification and analysis of hazards, appropriate preventive controls and CCPs, corrective action procedures, procedures for monitoring, and comprehensive verification procedures. Concerning monitoring procedures, premade templates for monitoring records are also provided within our services. The complexity of monitoring forms can be adjusted as these are all customizable.

What makes our system even more reliable is that you can customize any section of your HACCP plan to fit your business. If you feel like a food safety hazard we have specified should have a higher level of severity in your case, you can customize the level with a few clicks. In addition, our system allows you to add more process steps that may be new or very specific to your food business. Select the level of likelihood and severity of the hazard and you will automatically get a suggested action level. Use the risk assessment matrix we will provide as reference to what type of preventive and control action will you need. 

Our food safety management system at FoodDocs also allows you to perform continuous monitoring of your operations through automated entries of your commonly performed activities. Our mobile application notifies you if monitoring records detect non-compliant results and allow you to take action swiftly. Critical limits monitoring can be as easy as just reading messages from your phone.

Let our system guide you into correctly establishing your critical control points and other documents for CCP monitoring and continue producing safe food. Ditch the manual decision tree and traditional risk assessment matrix by going digital with FooDocs. We would be pleased to help you build your HACCP plan.



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