Who hasn’t felt nervous before an audit? There is so much pressure today on food safety professionals to accomplish successfully audits, especially when we have a big client requiring it or a Certification Body doing it. Most of us neglect the fact that audits should be perceived as one (more) powerful tool in the continuous improvement of our food safety system.
What is an audit? Probably one of the most common and used audit definition is the one provided by the ISO 19011 - Guidelines for auditing management systems. In its last update (2018) the ISO document defines audit as systematic, independent, and documented process for obtaining objective evidence and evaluate it objectively to determine the extent to which the audit criteria are fulfilled. In this definition ISO decided to reinforce the importance of the evidence being objective since the only change from the 2011 definition was the substitution of audit evidence for objective evidence.
More details can be found in the GFSI definition for audit present in the GFSI Benchmarking Requirements version 7.2: A systematic and functionally independent examination to determine whether activities and related results comply with a conforming scheme, whereby all the elements of this scheme should be covered by reviewing the supplier’s manual and related procedures, together with an evaluation of the production facilities. Clearly in common we have that audits should be systematic and independent process to determine compliance with criteria.
As a systematic process, auditing has two main roles:
If we think in simple terms, we can divide a food safety system into 4 steps. First, we have to research what should be done (based on what the organization does, the law, criteria or elements of the conforming scheme or system). Then say what you do. That is, we should have defined what is planned to do to fulfill the criteria. But this is not enough. More important even is to do as you say. In the daily work people in the organization should execute their functions and tasks accordingly with what is established. Finally, we must have evidence to be sure we can always reply affirmatively to the question: is it done as said?
During an audit the auditor should validate that what you say you do is enough, go to the field and verify not only that things are done as said but also look for evidence that were done as said.
As presented above, during an audit the auditor must be able to validate and verify compliance with criteria or requirements. For that the auditor must have adequate attributes and knowledge. In the diagram below are presented the main elements of an auditor and an audit.
If audits are to be used as a tool to improve the food safety system it must be performed independently and free from bias or conflict of interest, should be systematic and well documented.
Although sometimes it may look like that anyone can be an auditor, that is not the case, at least, for food safety audits. The first two essential elements in an auditor, Personal Characteristics and Skills are related with the person and not specific to food safety. Typically, an auditor should have an ethical behavior, be an organized and observant person (even curious) and have an emphatic and diplomatic approach. The auditor will also benefit from having skills related with how to question or interview people, how to conduct a systematic audit, how to prepare an audit report and active listening, among others. On the top of the pyramid is of course the knowledge of food safety and the industry. It is paramount that auditors know the law and requirements or criteria that apply to the organization and its product line they are auditing. Education, training and experience in the field they are auditing is also a basic requirement but is also essential for how much the organization may benefit from the audit.
Assessing and harmonizing an auditor’s knowledge and skills is certainly an important goal for the future. This is important not only to establish a minimal baseline of competencies for auditors but also to establish credibility for the profession and the process. The recent release by GFSI knowledge exam is a step in that direction, offering a consistent method to assess auditor knowledge across a range of relevant skills for all GFSI-recognized programmes. Auditors seeking to audit GFSI recognized certification programs will find questions about specific technical skills well as standard audit skills.
Another aspect that needs to be improved is the perception of value added by food safety audits. Auditors should do everything in their power (without compromising the independent, systematic and documented approach) to make the process beneficial to the organization and their food safety system.
Technology is evolving at an outstanding pace but for the moment the adaptation of new tools and technologies to auditing seems delayed. It is not difficult to foresee that technologies like smart glasses can play a role in the future of audits. Mainly people advocate that this tool could reduce travel costs but maybe we should focus more on how this technology could increase the number of audits for the same cost, provide video evidence from any key control performed by humans or even contribute to auditor and staff training. Another good use of the technological capacity would be to manage the enormous amount of data collected during audits (particularly by Certification Bodies) and use artificial intelligence to predict trends inside the business or even for an entire food sector.
Will unannounced audits become the new norm? This is also a question that will be answered in the next 10 years or so. Unannounced audits are present in GFSI benchmark requirements but not mandatory. At this time, FSSC 22000 has already introduced one mandatory unannounced audit in each certification cycle. In the new version of the scheme (version 5) organizations will have the option to have all their audits unannounced (except for the certification audit). How will other food safety programs address this issue in future updates?
Auditing is one of the most important tools for continuous improvement. We must look at audit results in a positive way, acknowledging that is better to know about nonconformities before they become a problem or even a food safety issue. Organizations should also have an “always ready” approach. This way not only unannounced audits will be as smooth as announced audits and audit fatigue (an issue especially relevant in big organizations where a large number of audits are performed annually) will be reduced because the organization doesn’t have to prepare for the audits.
About the Author:
Nuno F. Soares, Ph.D., is an author, consultant, and trainer in food safety. He his a Food Engineer Specialist and senior member of the Portuguese Engineering Professional Association. He has over 20 years of experience in food industry as quality and plant manager. You can reach him at www.nunofsoares.com
This article is reproduced with the Permission of Nuno F. Soares.