Fresh Focus: Third-Party Audits Can Improve Safety

There has never been a better time to focus on a third-party food-safety audit – and there are several reasons. First, the recent spinach outbreak has shone a spotlight on our industry, leading more customers to update their requirements to include mandatory audits.

Second, regulators will be formulating new guidelines or, worse, new regulations that will require action by the industry. And third, the industry will be looking to calm consumer fears about one of the healthiest food categories available, and an audit is a sure tool to begin that process.

If you haven’t already had a third-party audit, you are probably wondering where to start to get ready for one. My advice is to create a game plan and timeline with the end goal being the audit. If you currently have an annual audit, there may be additional steps you can take to go beyond your customer’s expectations to meet their needs.

First Time Audit

Once a company makes a decision to pursue a third-party audit, the first step is to choose which company to call to perform the audit. Most of these companies will send you a copy of the actual audit to study. Additionally, most companies have a program to offer a “mock audit.” For a fee, they can send one of their auditors to perform the mock audit, explaining where problems exist and highlighting what you are doing right.

The next step is to assign a small team of your managers to study the audit to test your operations and recordkeeping files to make sure everything is in place. In the audit, there will be policies and procedures that you may not be performing, but there are many resources to provide help in implementing these steps. Look to industry consultants, trade associations and the actual auditing companies for this support.

Once your company is ready to be audited, choose a slower workday during the week to schedule your audit. It usually takes 20 to 30 days to get an audit scheduled, so work that into your timeline. Also, be aware that you will be paying for an audit plus the travel expenses of the auditor.

On the day of the audit, make sure your management team is available to answer questions during an opening meeting and assign someone to accompany the auditor at all times during the day. Try to correct any deficiencies on the spot – that goes a long way in helping the auditor properly score each item.

There will probably be a closing meeting as well, and you want as many managers present as possible to hear the assessment. A written report and score is usually submitted on-site or within five to seven days. Once you become experienced at passing an audit, there are several additional steps you can implement to take the audit process even further.

Taking Audits to New Heights

Once a company conducts regular, annual third-party audits, there are many ways to spice up the audit process and even take your food-safety program to the next level. Customers are always looking for assurances that you are doing everything possible to make their products safe, so now is the time to inject some “oomph” into the audit process to create new excitement. Implementing even one of the following options will move your program forward in a big way.

• Conduct internal audits. It really helps to check up on operations quarterly or bi-annually to make sure the food safety procedures are being performed properly. Assign the job to an internal manager. Have him or her use a blank audit form to go through every department for a check-up, document corrected deficiencies and keep the record in a file.

• Hire a different auditing firm. As everyone knows, it can become easy to pass the same audit every year. To spice it up some, find another auditing firm to come in to check on your food-safety program. Every company works a little differently and every auditor has his or her own preferences. Having a back-up audit from another firm may bring you new information or cause your company to improve on its food-safety procedures.

• Convert to unannounced audits. This sounds risky, but if your company has been conducting third-party audits for years, the system works and should work properly every day. Having an unannounced audit will keep employees on their toes and provide a better picture of the current food-safety system.

• Organize a supplier certification program. Start by implementing an audit of your top three suppliers by your own staff. Choose the suppliers with the most sensitive ingredients or the highest volume to make sure they are providing the safest product possible. Not only should we be able to trace back to the farm, processors should have a clear picture of their supplier’s food-safety programs as a whole.

Constant Vigilance Pays Off

You may think of other options to implement to carry your food-safety program to new heights. Share experiences with other processors. Ask them what they’re doing to meet customer and regulatory requirements. Read all the reports on the spinach outbreak because regulators are working overtime to find the source of contaminants and new information will lead to new solutions for all fresh produce.

Take a proactive position when it comes to food safety and then look for new customers who have high standards – you could be their next supplier. Expanding your customer horizon can result in growth in production and profits. There has never been a better time to make the move to foster consumer confidence and increase your customer base.

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