However, there is some value in the virtual audit. I was working with a plant in the pre-COVID days. The manufacturing plant was located in the U.S., and corporate was located in Germany. Two individuals on the plant’s organizational chart were located in Germany. The question was, do these individuals need to travel from Germany to the U.S. for a one-to-two-hour interview as part of the audit? There was substantial interaction between the managers located in Germany and the United States. To eliminate needless waste, the audit interview of the German managers was conducted via video conference. I observed the interview, and I did not see any problems. The auditor was able to access any needed documents electronically.
I can see the use of video conferences as a useful tool for auditors. It can increase efficiency in the audit process when the auditor is auditing a portion of the food safety management system that is carried out by professionals at remote locations such as at the corporate location. When this is done, the auditor should assess the effectiveness of the communication between the two different sites. This process could be useful in the days of unannounced audits. It would allow the interviewing of the management team that may be away from the facility because of travel.”
In chatting with other food industry professionals, I found that they echoed similar thoughts. One individual stated that she participated in a virtual audit, but when travel opened up and she was able to actually visit the plant, she found much in the plant itself that the camera did not show. This same person acknowledged that the desk audit could be done virtually, however.
The Value in the Virtual Audit
Dr. Surak’s comments about utilizing all the senses when doing an audit are absolutely correct. There are those who say that one way to evaluate cleanliness is to ensure that the equipment looks clean, smells clean, and feels clean, and that test results verify this. You really can’t do any of these activities virtually; even looking through a camera lens isn’t always as effective as the human eye.
So, while virtual audits do have a role in managing food safety, auditors, certifying bodies, and the companies under audit need to understand the potential concerns and the commitments that are required for this remote inspection to be successful. The company has to be willing to share information via hard copy or electronically with the auditor. This means that signing a nondisclosure agreement may be an essential first step in the audit process; however, there needs to be a culture of nondisclosure for all participants involved in the audit process. If documents are shared, the auditor may be asked to return them at the end of the audit or erase them from their computer, a procedure to be avoided since the documents form the completed audit record. With programs such as Zoom, completed records may be shared in real time, but such a session may not give the auditor enough time for a proper review.
On the upside, virtual audits can drastically reduce travel costs, which could increase audit frequency. In many cases, travel costs can account for as much as 60% to 75% of the total audit. More importantly, it reduces wear and tear on auditors, a significant concern in a field that is chronically understaffed; auditor burnout is common
Another upside is the value of training new auditors using virtual audits. Sending a trainee to accompany an auditor can add as much as $5,000 to travel costs, which can severely limit the amount of training new auditors receive before going out alone.