Remote audits should not replace physical visits but can be used as part of a hybrid approach, said presenters at the Vienna Food Safety Forum.

The United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), Standards and Trade Development Facility (STDF) and the Australian Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry organized the event, which was attended by 400 participants from 65 countries.

Country presentations from Brazil, Cambodia and Indonesia highlighted benefits such as reduced time and financial costs, potential for remote audits to be a good tool for follow-up checks, to help people develop new skills, and better use of human resources.

Negatives included timezone and translation issues, factories being busy and noisy, technology problems, a need for standardization of procedures and ICT requirements, longer preparation time and a fear of missing something because of a lack of sensory clues and inability to read body language.

Audit survey feedback
Annelies Deuss, from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), presented initial findings from a survey on remote audits with 12 countries.

“Effectiveness is an important factor as countries are trying to understand and decide whether or not to continue with remote audits in the future, now the initial disruptions of the pandemic have resided. We thought there would have been a lot of remote audits before the pandemic but we noticed most were done in response to COVID-19. Before the pandemic, remote audits were mostly in remote locations or high risk destinations. We had expected to see a shift to using big data analytics and artificial intelligence but we saw the technology used is fairly basic with smartphones and video conferencing platforms,” she said.

Preliminary findings include agreement that remote audits are likely to become more efficient over time, said Deuss.

“It is clear we will see at least an ongoing role for partially remote audits. This means an audit where the site visit is done in person but it is informed by a document review in advance. The most significant benefit was that it enabled food trade to continue despite the pandemic. There were also cost savings in terms of travel expenses, greater flexibility in processes and personal benefits,” she said.

“On the other hand, one consistent concern was the limitations of technology to visualize sites and the lack of sensory inputs such as taste and smell. This led to the impression that the quality of evidence that could be gathered might not be as high. Many interviewees mentioned the preparation time increased related to more documents being shared in advance of the audit and the time to evaluate and verify these documents. ICT elements could raise issues around data protection and commercial confidentiality.”

European experience
Javier Tellechea Vertiz, who is involved with food audits at the European Commission, said remote audits commenced in September 2020.

“The principles of an audit have not changed. You need to have clear objectives, an audit plan and pre-audit questionnaire and clear reporting methods. When we do an audit we ask three main questions: Is there a control system in place? Can this system work? Is it working in practice? We found remote audits could answer the first two questions but it is limited to answer the third. The answer we get sometimes might not be accurate because we are missing certain elements. This is related to the openness of the authority and trust in auditors and the process. It is very hard to follow virtually an official delivering the controls so we decided not to visit any operators during a remote audit,” he said.

Tellechea Vertiz said challenges included document sharing, internet connectivity, the use of interpretation, people’s attention span, ensuring the relevant people are available and defining when the audit begins.

“We noticed from the beginning that we cannot expect our auditors to work in a remote meeting the same hours as on the ground. On the spot many times working seven to eight hours, no problem, but in a virtual setting on a screen, it is really hard to do meetings over four hours. That’s why most of our meetings are half a day. We saw a reticence by authorities to share documents belonging to operators or to themselves due to security of the sharing platform or other considerations. On the screen, the speed of processing information from documents is much slower. Can we take screenshots of the documents or store data from them?” he said.

“What is clear is that in a remote audit setting we need to put more emphasis on audit preparation and analysis of the data because you need to prepare for your meetings, they have to be targeted or time is wasted. We see, and our auditors tell us, it takes more time from the human resource point of view to carry out a remote audit. Some topics we cover are more suitable for the remote setting, for example, visiting a laboratory is more suitable than visiting a slaughterhouse to see how the official performs the controls.”

DG Sante has done 154 fully remote audits between March 2020 and the end of 2021.

“Since late 2021, we moved to a mainly hybrid, partially remote, blended approach, where we have meetings to establish how the system should work and can it work before we go to the country to verify how the system is implemented to answer the third question,” said Tellechea Vertiz.  

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