Third-party audits are seen as a crucial component for food organizations today, meeting customer or corporate requirements, while providing them transparency and assurance. Unfortunately, just the mention of an audit is enough to stress some people.

Instead, an audit should be seen as an opportunity to demonstrate that a plant is in control of its processes. It’s a chance to verify that what you say you do is actually happening, while ensuring that food safety is embedded in the company culture and that safe food can be produced and arrive safely to the retailer and consumer. Maintenance of an effective cold chain is key to food safety. Ensuring effective HACCP implementation, temperature controls, contamination prevention, and good hygiene practices are all key factors to be assessed in an independent food safety audit.

If you’ve never participated in an audit, guidance may alleviate some of the stress. You can prepare using five preliminary steps.

  1.  First, you need to establish your food safety management system against which everyone works, including policies, procedures, and work instructions. This will include specifications, recipes, training, maintenance, cleaning, allergen management, food fraud, food defense, and HACCP.
  2.  Once these systems are established, make sure staff are trained so they know and understand their responsibilities. Staff should also be able to demonstrate through records that verification activities like product testing and results for cleaning effectiveness are in place.
  3.  You will then need to verify the successful implementation of these procedures by performing internal audits. Split your operation into discrete activities based on implementation of systems and standards, and then perform your own audits. This is an opportunity to make sure the systems developed enhance and support the operation, while also making improvements to ensure those systems work for your operation.
  4.  A key part of the implementation of any system is to hold management meetings to review that those policies are being correctly implemented onsite and that those procedures provide value in support of the operation. This internal review and management engagement should be part of the day-to-day operation of the site.
  5.  Each of these steps should be fully implemented for a minimum of three months in advance of the audit, allowing for several production and cleaning cycles to take place. During this time, any weaknesses should be addressed, and improvements made.

With these foundational elements in place, your audit process will be more efficient and probably more effective at supporting your facility’s food safety efforts. You can then begin preparing for the audit itself.

Organize Documentation

Documentation and records will need to demonstrate that all food safety issues have been addressed, and that you comply with regulatory and customer requirements. These documents should be organized so you know where they are and so they are easily accessible for you and the auditor.

Engage Your Team

Your team should be aware of the audit process, as they may be interviewed or observed by the auditor as part of their job. They may also be asked to perform checks on their portion of the line and explain what they are doing or why. Preparation here can help staff avoid stress and understand their important role in the audit process. You can do this by holding staff meetings leading up to the food safety audit, explaining the process and what is expected of them.

You should also prepare them for announced audits, ensuring that the facility is consistently ready. This should include ensuring that not only is the production floor ready, but also the exterior of the facility, the warehouse, and even staff facilities. Too often, portions of the facility that are not used by the Quality Manager are where lapses will occur. By empowering your team to take pride in their workspace and facility, you will be better prepared.

Prepare Documentation

While you have already organized your documents, information today is often held electronically, so you will need to take a few additional steps to ensure access to them. Confirm that the connection is working, that you know where in your filing system necessary documents are held, and what those files are named. Under pressure during the audit, it may be difficult to remember a specific document, so preparing with that information is beneficial.

Important documentation like HACCP plans, recipes, food safety data, copies of specifications, and service level agreements and contracts with key service providers should all be readily available. If you need to, work across departments to coordinate for access.

Involve Leadership

Though the quality or food safety manager is often the host of the audit, gone are the days when they are solely responsible it. The auditor will be interested in asking questions of others, so ensure that key staff and top management are available to participate, and that you make this known to the auditor as part of the opening meeting. Their involvement will help demonstrate how the top management support the implementation of standards and food safety culture.

Work Toward Improvement

It can be easy to take audit findings or an audit score personally. Instead, remember that an audit is for the benefit of the organization, so asking questions and engaging the auditor to ensure understanding is key. By fully understanding the findings or how you were scored, you will be able to successfully address any nonconformities.    

Go Remote

Traditionally, an audit is held on site and consists of review of documentation and records, inspection of facilities, and an observation of processes and staff performing tasks. As a result of the pandemic, travel restrictions, and limited access to sites, remote audits have provided a solution for many. The remote portion of the audit will focus on documentation, records and interviews. An onsite portion will then focus on the physical inspection of the facility.

Prior to the audit, you will need to undertake a documented risk assessment, conducted to understand the feasibility and comfort level with using the approach, including use of the Information Communication Technology (ICT) platforms. One challenge may be with chillers and freezers, due to their insulation and the resulting poor signal. By working with your auditor, you may be able to find a solution so the facility can still be examined.

By following this guidance to prepare, and then viewing the audit process as an opportunity to improve food safety processes and practices, you will remove stress from the situation. This will also likely result in a more positive outcome to the audit itself and you will have an appreciative auditor.