Using Internal Audits for External Audit Excellence
Audits play an integral role in the successful production or manufacturing of food and beverages at a fundamental level. Both internal and external audits serve as documented evidence that companies are performing due diligence to adequately protect their food from unsafe or unsecured practices, thereby safeguarding their consumers from potentially unsafe products.
ISO 19011 defines audits as “[the] systematic, independent, and documented process for obtaining audit evidence and evaluating it objectively to determine the extent to which audit criteria are filled.” If we deconstruct this statement, we can infer several factors that governing bodies deem central to audit success for food safety standards:
1. Ethical Conduct
5. Objectively Evaluated
In exploring these principles, we can further outline the dynamic relationship between internal and external audits.
The first principle from the ISO audit definition speaks to integrity more than anything else. Ethical conduct refers to reporting findings from your audit in an open and honest manner. When documenting findings from your internal audits, be sure to reflect any non-conformances that you may come across. Try to view your facility and processes as if it were from an outside perspective, removing as much bias as possible. By recording non-conformances and the corrective actions you take when you do find them, you provide external auditors with a more accurate baseline to compare against and demonstrate that you have made attempts to improve based on your findings. While performing an SQF audit or GMP audit, for example, a food auditor will review your documentation in addition to asking verbally. Maintaining ethical conduct and accurately representing your facility gives validation to what you say and reinforces trust with your food auditor and furthermore your consumers.
The word systematic can be used to imply “due professional care.” Your internal audit should be performed methodically, with a scope established beforehand. Complete each step of your audit thoroughly, respecting employees who are present while the audit is in process. Be intentional with how you record your findings and use templated documents to add to the consistency. If you do find any non-conformances, review the evidence to support it with employees who are present, making sure that everyone recognizes the reasoning. The “systematic” principle ties in with external audits in that professional auditors who evaluate BRC (or BRCGS), SQF, GMP, or GFSI audit standards are very practiced in how they audit facilities. In this instance, the internal audit function serves to mimic the external audit process and streamline audit completion.
The success of internal audits is dependent on the audit being facilitated by employees who work outside of the area being audited. Independence ensures that there is no conflict of interest, whether intentional or unintentional. Employees who work in the area regularly may not notice subtle deviations from established procedures or see visible evidence of non-conformances. GFSI standards dictate that internal audits must be done by employees outside of the audited department.
Circling back to Ethical Conduct is the principle “Objectively Evaluated.” External food auditors may come to the same facility repeatedly but still must maintain that their audits are performed impartially and in a fair manner. Removing personal bias when inspecting conditions safeguards consumers, who essentially depend on this. Assessing conditions, and documenting them as they truly are, reflects a high standard and helps ensure food quality and safety. Use detailed templates and guidelines to perform your internal audits. Observe processes as they occur on a regular basis to have an accurate depiction of adherence to policies and standards. Stage internal audits to simulate external audits so employees are adequately prepared and can be more comfortable when external auditors do come in. Objectively assessing the state of your facility, documentation, and processes show integrity and reinforce the trust that backs your brand.
Following these principles helps you achieve “Excellent” marks on your external audits and minimize any incidents that could occur. BRC audits differ from SQF audits, but knowledge of the audit standards helps you adequately form your procedures and prepare for audit success. Learn more about internal audit best practices in our fully online courses Internal Auditing—Basics and Internal Auditing—Advanced. Gain valuable knowledge and resources to start your journey to audit success.