Top 5 Things for a Successful Audit by a Food Safety Auditor
food safety audit
I work as a food safety auditor since more than 20 years. I started my career in Latin-America, and for the last 10 years I work in Europe. I have a scientific background with a PhD in Chemistry and over the years I worked with most standards and categories in the food industry. As a reader of IFSQN you are probably an auditee which means that you are on the other side in a food safety audit. So, I thought it could be useful if I shared some thoughts and ideas for a successful audit from the auditor’s view. I have tried to boil it down to 5 points that can be developed further if you like:
1. Demonstrate knowledge. Not knowing can be ok, but don’t invent stories. Auditees have much more knowledge on their own processes than the auditors. That is normally the case even if there are exceptions. But this does not take away the pressure on people in an audit situation. Many times, it happens that people get nervous and start to talk. Often people who are passionate about their work (like me ). It is like if someone just hit the “Play” button. They love talking and explaining things even when the auditor has not asked any questions. Imagine when I walk down the line observing the process and I see a new piece of equipment. Suddenly somebody feels the need to explain “this is a new machine that cuts the bread with water pressure”. Ok, I answer and decide to follow up with a question. “Can you show me a record after a corrective maintenance for cleaning verification?” The answer is no. It has not been implemented yet. Instead of just answering a simple no to my first question we now got a snowball that just grows bigger and bigger.
2. Discussing about a specific requisite implementation is ok, but it depends how. It is sometimes good to share one’s views and understandings. But, don’t forget that even if the Standards are voluntary, they are mandatory in practice. This means that if there is a bullet point for a XX record in the Standard, then the XX record is expected to be presented in the audit. Unfortunately, some Standards like the BRC have a lot of bullet points and demand a lot. But this is an advantage and meant to make life easier for the producers. Stick to the bullet points and you can be sure to comply with the requisites. It is always a better approach to follow all the points than to start to question why a specific requisite exists. Keep in mind that before a requisite gets implemented in the Standard there is a lot of analysis and input from stakeholders and experts from the industry. Each word and coma are carefully chosen. Discussions with auditors occur many times when the requisite is new and presented for the first time in the Standard. Take as an example the new BRC Confidential Reporting system. In a recent audit, category 16/BRC, a person told me in a light-hearted way “in our company we promote openness and discussion in all levels, so the confidential system is not applicable, and it is contradictory with our policy”. This reasoning tells me as an auditor that the person has not understood the requisite and that company has not put in enough effort to implement it. This is a given nonconformity.
3. Don’t take anything personal. When the auditor asks questions, we are auditing the System, not the persons. So never take anything that is said in a personal way. In a company that I audited recently, category 14/BRC, we were observing one of the metal detectors. The operator lay the Fe, No Fe and SS test standards on the step of a staircase next to the workstation. There was a lot of traffic on this staircase because it led to the box forming area. It was evident that the problem was the operator’s workspace. The Company had not provided the operator with a desk to put the standards while he was checking the metal detector. Unfortunately, the operator started to feel wrongly accused when I started to ask questions. From my view it was clear that the plant should provide the right tools for the operator to perform his work. The bad practice was caused by the lack of means from the company. There was nothing else to complain about. The operator had received training, the training was assessed for effectiveness, and the metal control check has been done correctly. I always try to be respectful and sensitive when I deal with different people in the plant. The reason for that is primary to create an atmosphere of collaboration but also to avoid that these situations occur. But it is never the person who is audited, it is the process.
4. Certification audits are not a training activity. During the audit it is not the right time to try to understand the standard under which you are certified. The sole objective of the audit is to prove compliance with the standard. Sometimes companies that are under audit misunderstand this and think that it is a normal client – supplier relationship thing. “Because I am your client you must teach me about what is new in the standard”. On one hand it is understandable because the companies pay the certification entity for the audit, but it is not correct. It is not the job of the auditor to teach the auditee about the Standard. As an auditor you try to please the customer and manage these situations in the best way possible with a lot of diplomacy. But at the end of the day when it becomes apparent that a requisite is not understood by the plant the nonconformity is raised and reported.
At last, and most important of all;
5. The objective of an audit is NOT an exercise to find non-conformities. The objective of an audit is to assess the System under the food safety and quality. As a result of the audit the plant is awarded the certificate that is valid for a whole year. Remember that the audit is a short scenario, normally 2 to 4 days depending on the facility. This means that the auditor must work in an effective way to get as a complete view as possible. The result depends to a great extent on the level of collaboration between the auditor and the plant. The auditor must determine a statistical significative conclusion of all the requisites of the Standard. Many different data sets must be evaluated, and the selection of the data is critical. Once, during an audit, Cat 12 /BRC, I was criticized by the plant to ask for too many filter (CCP) records instead of evaluating other process data. They argued that with those seen in plant and the traceability exercise it should have been enough. I agree that also process control data, like SCP weight online can be relevant, but it is less significant than CPc and CCPc that is related to the final product. There is always a trade-off somewhere, but it is important to keep a big picture perspective. Think about what is significant and relevant data that represent the complete process and try to have this data available. The auditor will ask for details if needed. This helps the audit go smoother and will increase the quality of the audit.
About the author:
Leila J Burin, PhD Food Chemistry.
Lead Auditor in BRC, IFS, FSSC 22000, etc. Academic Coordinator in “Portal de Inocuidad” (www.portaldeinocuidad.com).
I work as a food safety auditor since more than 20 years. I started my career in Latin America and for the last 10 years I have been working in Europe. I have a scientific background with a PhD in Chemistry and over the years I works with most standards and categories in the food industry such as HEINZ, BRC, IFS, FSSC22000, SQMS, LIDL, and several others. Since 2010 I am also the Training Coordinator for “Portal de Inocuidad” which is an on-line service for Spanish speaking food safety professionals.
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