“I can’t talk now. We’re preparing for a third-party audit next week.”
“I have a third-party audit in two days and we’d like to get a very high score again!”
“Can you come to our facility tomorrow and help us prepare for an audit scheduled in two weeks?”
Have you heard these statements before? Audits seem to bring on anxiety and fear, and, in some cases, the auditees challenge themselves to obtain the highest audit scores in the community. They can cause stress for food businesses that allow (and pay for) audits in order to sell their products. Viewing an audit as a tool for food quality and safety rather than as an endpoint may correct some of these misperceptions and relieve some anxiety.
Audits verify that the appropriate activities a food processor is using are written and properly followed to control the hazards of the food, facility, and supplier. Audits consist of the verification of records reviews, key personnel interviews, and onsite observations evaluated against a set standard or a checklist. The potential areas of verification include the process, sanitation, supply chain, allergens, and system. Audits are conducted by a food regulator, such as FDA, USDA, or their equivalents in other countries; by a buyer/vendor, such as a food manufacturer, the military or government, or a retail food chain; or by a third party.
The auditor verifies that the processor has written food safety plans that describe what is to be done to keep food safe. For example, if the processor states that product temperatures are obtained with a calibrated temperature indicating device (TID), the processor must have procedures demonstrating that someone in the facility is trained to use a calibrated TID to obtain the necessary data and that a trained staff member knows how to calibrate the TID. If the procedures are not properly done or followed, that processor’s performance will be reflected in the audit results.
Auditors are also different from one another; they can interpret the same auditing guidelines differently. Additionally, auditing guidelines and standards are different for different schemes. Thus, when a food processor does not address all the audit elements that a specific auditor has on its prescripted checklist, such omissions may result in audit score deductions. But is a low or even failed audit score a reflection of a poorly run operation? Conversely, is a high audit score a reflection of a superbly run operation? The answer to both questions is no.
Define Your Goal
A critical requirement of an audit is to define your audit goal. Is the goal to obtain a very high score that gives you bragging rights? Is it to obtain an impressive-looking certificate to hang in your reception area? Or, is it to control food hazards and risks and then learn from the results in order to improve the operations? Defining your audit goal is a critical issue that must be addressed.
When your audit goal has been defined, your company leadership then sets the tone for the rest of the staff to achieve this goal. An audit is not like an exam that you study for, take, and then shelve until another exam is scheduled; an audit defines your establishment’s food safety culture, and this must be evident in your daily operations and the products you manufacture. The establishment culture states your belief that food safety is your first and foremost objective. If a food is not safe, it is not a food and will not be sold.
Auditing Services and Standards
To maintain grocery shelf space, diversify product offerings, and potentially increase revenue, processors continue to improve existing products and develop new ones. But, as improved and new food products are introduced to the marketplace, their safety must be verified. Food regulators often require safety verification at least one step back (to vendors) and, at times, one step forward (to users). Processors meet this verification requirement either by themselves or through the assistance of auditing services and consultants.