The Virtual Audit
Many companies mandate that their suppliers successfully pass one of the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) certification schemes and these programs all require an annual on-site audit. Early in the pandemic, GFSI provided a six-month extension on audit requirements while continuing certification. When the pandemic showed no sign of abating quickly, GFSI allowed the use of virtual or remote audits in lieu of further extension of certification without any audit at all. Proponents of remote auditing saw this as a move forward; however, there are those who opposed their use even in such extenuating circumstances. Let’s look at the pros and cons of the virtual or remote audit.
I spoke with Warren Edde, manager of supply chain for the J.R. Simplot Company, a potato and French fry producer based in Boise, Idaho. As part of his job duties, Edde manages and conducts audits directly for Simplot:
“About June of 2020, when I realized travel would be off the docket for quite some time, I began to conduct virtual audits. At that time, though, it was only put on as a bridge and was not intended to be a long-term program. Two years later, the virtual audit program has continued to be an integral part of my supply chain verification activities, especially with foreign suppliers and new suppliers.
The virtual audits I perform are conducted over video conferencing tools. These platforms provide the ability to review programs, ask clarification questions, and review implementation records to ensure the food safety programs are being followed. This gave me confidence that the hazards had been properly assessed, the preventive controls necessary were in place, and that the facility was performing essential monitoring, verification, and corrective actions according to the written programs. The virtual audits are an essential component during no-travel times and, quite honestly, are a useful tool for assessment of programs for new and existing vendors. The downside [is that] they do not allow for conducting operator interviews, facility observations, assessing hygiene controls, [or for] adherence to cGMPs, which are essential components of the on-site audit.
That said, the virtual audit will remain in my toolbox and will continue to be incorporated into future auditing, not replacing the on-site audit, but acting as an extension to the onsite audit. This approach will allow for review of programs and records prior to the onsite review and allows me to better schedule my time. I can conduct multiple virtual audits in a week, and in many cases I can then travel to a process location and perform multiple onsite inspections at a future time. I can honestly say that I prefer conducting the program and record review at my desk where I have plenty of room and plenty of monitors.”
So, there are pros and cons to a virtual audit program in Edde’s mind, but he is very clear that on-site audits are not going away. One point that should be underscored is that having access to documents and records before going into a plant is important; reviewing these materials beforehand can considerably reduce the time spend in the plant.
John Surak, PhD, professor emeritus of food science at Clemson University in Clemson, S.C., and past chair of the United States delegation that helped develop the ISO 22000 for safety standard told me that he has similar thoughts on virtual audits:
“I do not support virtual audits when the auditor is in the production part of a site. For example, [when] auditing PRPs. I also believe that virtual audits are not effective when auditing the lab. The auditor has a limited view of what is happening. In addition, the auditor is at the mercy of the person holding the camera. You do not have the ability to smell or clearly hear what is happening in the manufacturing part of the facility.