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Raising Food Safety Standards Through Audits and Inspections
Adeniyi Odugbemi, Global Director - Food Safety and Food Defense, ADM.
Verification activities including measuring activities leading up to the true conditions of a food facility have been grouped within the concept of facility audits and inspections. Although the terms are used interchangeably, they mean different things. As food safety becomes a non-negotiable parameter in food facilities, definitions around auditing have been stated as “a systematic, independent and documented process for obtaining audit evidence, and evaluating it objectively to determine the extent to which the audit criteria are fulfilled.” Essentially, inspection activities seek to uncover risky conditions and hazards that might lead to producing unwholesome food products, whereas audits tend to evaluate programs, procedures, and processes to ensure they meet the defined food safety goals and objectives. Audits are typically performed less frequently and by an external party to the business entity, whereas inspections are performed more often and typically by a party engaged in the business operation. With both concepts of audits and inspections, the goal is to not leave food safety to chance but to give food safety the priority it deserves in any food facility. The success of food manufacturing facilities and the brands they support relies on the strength and success of their food safety programs, and this is feasible through successful audit scores. Overall, the framework of audits and inspections activities focuses specifically on those requirements, criteria, procedures, activities, and data relating to the safe production and supply of food products.
Facility audits involve uncovering lapses in operations, processes, procedures, and programs, whereas facility inspections involve evaluating people, places, conditions, equipment, and amenities within a food operation. With increased expectations for safe and quality food products, the conditions of food facilities where these food-handling operations take place continue to be important. Therefore, these audits and inspections set the expectation in assessing the facility’s true conditions; management system; food processing, preparation, and storage processes; hygienic and sanitation conditions; facility design; employee hygiene requirements; and documentation and record-keeping procedures. An important benefit of auditing and inspecting food facilities is the ability to show transparency and traceability within the food supply chain, enhancing quality standards as well as improving efficiency, while also reducing hazards and risk. Auditing thus becomes a benchmark or best practice in the food industry to truly assess the conditions of food facilities and place them on a scale for continuous improvement. Audits are conducted as part of regulatory or government oversights, certification schemes, compliance assessments, industry standards, customer requirements, or internal facility assessments to provide evidence of meeting the rigorous food safety standards.
Now more than ever, consumers continue to demand food products handled at locations that are clean, food safe, and with limited risks and hazards that can induce food contamination. As such, good audit scores have been used as indicators of wholesome facility conditions. Successfully passing a food-auditing exercise has been used to demonstrate a facility’s commitment to producing safe food and showcasing the facility’s dedication to food safety standards and practices. To achieve success and exemplary standards, food facilities use audits to examine a much more in-depth look at the actual food safety practices and operations implemented at the granular level.
“Food safety through audits is a systematic, independent and documented process for obtaining audit evidence, and evaluating it objectively to determine the extent to which the audit criteria are fulfilled.”
Within the framework of continuous improvements, identifying nonconformance in audits has been used as an avenue to establish key priorities for facilitating improvements and informing the decision-making process that leads to better outcomes. Audits have also been used to identify risks, hazards, or emerging issues and offer possible fixes to better align findings with requirements. Therefore, audits have become the overarching concept to estimate and reinforce food safety behaviors. Thus, auditor competency has been described as a challenge to optimizing the full spectrum of the process. Building capacity and skill, identifying competency traits and calibration, and providing ongoing professional development for the community for auditors have been described as instrumental in developing a robust auditing system. Auditor competence is defined as the ‘ability to apply knowledge and skills to achieve the intended result”. Auditors—irrespective of locations—must be able to calibrate to the same auditing standards upholding the concept of the constituency, equity, and fairness without bias or wavering application of standards. Professional capabilities and competence should be assessed before individuals assume the role of transnational audit professionals in a food business. Benchmarking and harmonizing auditor requirements across the industry helps all auditors objectively analyze and assess food safety conditions at facilities in unison.
Because audit findings or nonconformances are potential issues that can plague the production of safe and quality food products, providing an appropriate solution becomes imperative. To discover the future of food safety, audits have become an integral exercise to expose and understand risks/hazards prevalent in an operation and offer appropriate corrective and preventive action (CAPA). The CAPA process is meant to investigate and address all identified nonconformances in an audit. When nonconformances or findings occur from an audit, a rigorous process of investigation must be initiated to identify why it occurred, take corrective action, and prevent the recurrence of the root causes. This here is the beauty of continuous improvement to expose where gaps exist in food-handling operations and promptly offer lasting solutions to correct the findings and prevent a future recurrence.
Formal and frequent inspections/audits should continue to be commonplace in the food sphere. This practice ensures consistent compliance to standards to enhance the consistent production of safe and quality food products. Therefore, the audit has become a significant tool in discovering and mitigating food product risks and hazards. As part of continuous improvement tools, audits are valuable in that they quickly identify unsafe and unwholesome food safety practices and effectively ameliorate them. A visible commitment to food safety audits exhibited by food managers is surely an avenue to raise the bar of food safety performance in food facilities.
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