The rise of COVID-19 in February and March 2020 changed the world, and that included the food processing industry.
The pandemic, which now seems to have evolved into an endemic, caused many changes in how the industry carried on their business: Regulatory inspections ground to a halt, supply chain issues at many levels caused numerous companies to rethink where and how they purchased ingredients; staffing issues, which remain to this day, were abundant; and food companies scrambled to enact programs to protect their workers from the virus. And, there were many more effects.
Unlike some businesses, food processing could not take a break during the worst of the pandemic; billions of people around the world had to eat. The industry had to operate short-handed in many cases, however, and many of those who were out sick were those responsible for food safety. The food industry as a whole was somewhat fortunate from a food safety perspective; while there have been recalls and outbreaks over the past two and a half years, until the recent issue with infant formula, there was really nothing that was exceptionally high profile. The food industry may well have dodged a bullet from a food safety standpoint; however, there were other issues, one of which was the inability to conduct regular audits of facilities by certifying bodies and buyers. Travel and visits were curtailed for months, and, in addition, many companies established “no visitor” policies that lasted for a year or more—so, no auditors were allowed.
Elements of an Audit
Audits have become an integral part of conducting business in the food industry, and the smart companies view them as an important element in their continuous improvement program. A fresh set of eyes often sees things that company people take for granted.
Audits generally incorporate several different elements, including:
- A review of documented procedures;
- A record review;
- Inspection of the plant and grounds; and
- Determination of whether procedures are being followed.
In short, an auditor should review and understand the programs and procedures included in the food safety plan and then confirm their implementation and effectiveness at controlling hazards through observation of operations and assessment of the facility and grounds.
The first two elements are often referred to as desk audits. There has been a push among many audit firms to place a greater emphasis on the time spent in a plant so that the focus of the audit is more on what’s going on rather than on the review of documents and records. While it’s not uncommon to find perfect records, it’s rare to find perfect plant practices or pristine facilities.
As an example of the importance of observing what goes on in a plant, here is a story from a long-time auditor I spoke with. The auditor was asked to conduct a GMP/food safety audit of a plant. He met with plant management who basically gave him free access to the whole facility. The auditor found a niche in a balcony overlooking the production floor and made himself comfortable. The plant manager, who was a very hands-on person, came by several times over the next few hours and observed the auditor sitting up on the balcony. He finally waved the fellow down and wanted to know why he had planted himself in one place—he was paying for an audit. The auditor then proceeded to show the plant manager several pages of adverse observations that he had made just sitting. This underscores the importance of observing the process.
So, if one cannot visit a facility and conduct this observation in person, what is the alternative? Enter the remote or virtual audit, an audit conducted via a web-enabled remote system.