Auditor’s bias is not a myth. Regardless of how much we try to deny it, the reality is that our thoughts and beliefs are strongly influenced by our implicit or unconscious biases. Renowned Canadian author Robertson Davies once defined unconscious bias with a quote: “The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.”
Food businesses around the globe are governed by at least three critical components: people, policies, and processes. Of the three, the one that often gets missed and underestimated is people. The practices observed from farm to fork (or petri dish to platter) are influenced by people. As we are shaped by our unique experiences, we each bring a different viewpoint to the process. In an industry that is bound by compliance, ethics, and transparency, it is of paramount importance for all parties involved to remain objective. Here are a few ways that unconscious biases may manifest themselves during a food safety audit.
Third–party auditors from private institutions sometimes find themselves in a double bind. On the one hand, they are required to remain impartial and report what is witnessed on the field. On the other hand, they aim to foster a healthy business relationship with their clients. Most third-party auditors, for instance, schedule audits at the convenience of their clients (the suppliers), which does not necessarily result in auditing the business as is. In addition, the Food Safety Modernization Act’s definition of a “qualified auditor” makes it challenging to ensure an alignment between the auditing lens applied, the standards against which the audit was conducted, and an unbiased audit report.
One way to circumvent this would be to empower food establishments to schedule (preferably unannounced) food safety audits of their suppliers. Not only would this approach increase transparency, but it would also promote proactive food safety practices instead of reactive ones.
Regional culture impacts the assessment of food safety risks. Auditors may experience language barriers, a lack of cultural awareness, or a combination of both. The caste system, for example, is still prevalent in regions within the Asian subcontinent, such as India, and it influences lines of production and management. A recent study illustrated the correlation between a farmer’s caste and access to agricultural services in India. The results indicate staggering differences based on caste between farmers’ earnings, land development, and the federal resources available to them.
One way to approach cultural differences is to practice mindfulness. It is unrealistic to absorb everything there is to know about a foreign culture prior to the audit. Where possible, asking the right questions, and ensuring that adequate time is spent on the project not only ensures the auditor views the facility with a wider lens, but also highlights opportunities for improvement. In the pursuit of gathering evidence-based data, it important to understand the “why” before assessing the “how.”
Although it is impossible to be completely void of unconscious bias, keeping it in check would certainly pave the way for more transparent, ethical, and compliant food safety audits.