In part one of this four-part series with SafetyChain Software, Food Safety News explores the role of remote auditing during the COVID-19 era.
What is a remote audit?
A remote audit is conducted partially or entirely off-site. Even during the COVID era with limited travel and reduced access for onsite inspection, it still covers everything that an onsite audit does but uses technology to reinforce the process. It will usually be the same duration, and just as for a traditional audit, you should be prepared with everything you need to make available for the auditor.
In an article written by Thomas Burke, published this past month by Forbes magazine, Emily Griep, manager of food safety at United Fresh, expressed confidence in remote audits. Her enthusiasm was shared, too, by the vast majority of food industry stakeholders. “In light of the FDA’s New Era of Smarter Food Safety plan, producers and customers alike should embrace new approaches to food safety verification,” urged Griep.
The business magazine’s story noted that Griep believes “virtual audits will continue beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. Enhanced data analytics and information gathering will increasingly look at ways of prioritizing high-risk scenarios for physical audits while using virtual audits to increase efficiency, reduce environmental impact, and improve livelihoods.”
The importance of a remote audit
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many food plants have had to halt or postpone their third-party auditing schedules, which increases the risk to their business and consumers. Remote auditing is now being used by companies who want to demonstrate through independent verification that they are continuing to meet food safety standards.
Shamonique Schrick, FSQA solutions architect for SafetyChain Software, says, “As food companies pivot to keep their doors open while keeping up with production demand, auditing must continue to be a priority.”
“Auditing, in general, is critical, but especially during this uncertain time to be able to reassure your customers that quality and food safety standards are being met,” says Schrick.
Schrick says putting off audits could, at the very least, lead to a certification lapse that results in loss of customers, and at the very most, a serious food safety compromise.
“There are also risks of programs failing due to lack of oversight during this high-stress time and limited resources as this crisis continues. There are fewer plant management resources available due to social distancing requirements that help limit exposure of employees on the frontlines in your facilities,” says Schrick. “While food safety is always critical to avoid putting products out there that could potentially make people sick, it is further complicated by many people avoiding going to the hospital or doctor due to risks associated with the virus.”
Rather than weighing the risks of whether to have an in-person audit or to not have one at all, Brian Neal, technical manager for Eurofins Food Assurance, recommends companies look into taking part in a remote audit. According to him, remote audits follow the same process as an in-person audit, conducted over the phone or video.
“Remote audits are being treated as closely as possible to an onsite audit,” explains Neal. “This will include employee interviews, a look at records, and a review of all your programs and procedures. All of the key steps of an audit will take place, only without an auditor walking around the entire facility looking at things.”
When it comes to sharing required documents, companies can either upload digital copies to a shared portal or upload JPEG files of printed materials. Only authorized users will be able to view uploaded materials to maintain confidentiality.
“Remote audits have the same flow as an onsite audit,” he adds. “The same documents, records, and procedures will be requested, and the same people will be interviewed as if the auditor was standing in front of them. It’s like the auditor is there without actually being there.”
Adapt, don’t compromise
A fundamental component of auditing for food companies is to assure the supply chain that production is following strict food safety standards. According to Schrick, making the shift to remote auditing is an adaptation to staying in compliance and not a compromise.
“Remote auditing is there to provide companies with a fresh set of eyes on their processes, which is even more important right now. Companies look at the same processes every day, which can potentially lead to oversights due to familiarity, especially during a time when everyone is a little more distracted than usual,” explains Schrick. “Remote auditing is an effective way to ensure food safety and certification standards are being met without making compromises.”
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