Much ink has been spilled detailing the impacts of COVID-19 on the food industry. News outlets, blogs, webinars, and more continue to relay stories about food processors overwhelmed with COVID-positive employees and grocery stores working around the clock to keep shelves stocked. With hospitals struggling to provide access to care, food safety is now perhaps more critical than ever.
As the Food Protection and Defense Institute’s Director, Dr. Jennifer van de Ligt, previously detailed for us here, the pandemic’s effects have varied across food industry sectors. Demand has toppled for sites that provide products to the foodservice sector and skyrocketed for those supplying retailers. With such unprecedented fluctuation, audit activities are now top-of-mind in securing global food safety.
The Case for the Audit: Potential Pandemic Blind Spots
There are several instances in food production during the pandemic that exemplify the importance of both internal and external audits. On sites where production increases exponentially, new hires must be brought on and adequately trained. Audits ensure these new employees follow food safety programs correctly and that they fully understand how their role affects product safety.
These production increases could lead to less time for certain food safety procedures, like prerequisite programs for sanitation and preventive maintenance. This reduction in time can lead to several product quality failures, such as microbiological or foreign material contamination risks. Internal and external audits minimize food safety risks and help your company avoid recalls.
Amid a global pandemic, the logistics of on-site audits seem incredibly complex. These complexities are not insurmountable – new and innovative ways to conduct portions of the audits virtually continue to become the norm. In any event, audits must continue for independent third-party verification of the effectiveness of food safety and quality systems to meet customer requirements.
The Rise of the Remote Audit
Tasked with finding a new way to navigate the audit process, the industry has seen a rise in virtual audits. Though at first remote audits were regarded as a temporary solution to travel restriction and social distancing guidelines, they are now becoming the way of the future. So much so that GFSI has recently released their proposed Benchmarking requirements for remote activities to be used in combination with on-site audits. Several other international food safety CPOs such as the Brand Reputation Compliance Global Standards (BRCGS) and Safe Quality Food Institute (SQFI) also allow remote alternatives to on-site audits during COVID-19.
Remote audits present a slew of pros and cons. For the auditor, the hassle and expense of travel, lodging, and the uncertainty around flights are all eliminated. However, this leaves questions about really getting a feel for a facility’s processes through sight, touch, and smell – cornerstones of the in-person audit. There is also the challenge of not being able to see all aspects of the operation during virtual audits. For auditees, record reviews potentially become a breeze, while the audit scope comes into question. The answer could be a blended or partial remote auditing methodology, in which some audit components happen on-site while others occur remotely.
As the world remains in flux, audits continue to evolve. To keep our employees and food supply safe, everyone must increase buy-in and flexibility for both internal and external audits. Learn more about upskilling your workforce in internal audit best practices with our comprehensive internal audit training solutions.