Columns

Food Safety: The trouble with third-party audits

May 1, 2009
/ Print / Reprints /
ShareMore
/ Text Size+
Passing an audit is not the issue. Ensuring safety is.




In the wake of the salmonella outbreak caused by products manufactured by the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA), members of an advisory board I sit on engaged in a chat session that focused on third-party auditors and their value to the industry.

This discussion was prompted by a March 5, 2009, article in the New York Times entitled “The Trouble with Food Safety Audits,” written by Michael Moss and Andrew Martin. In my opinion, the article contained some errors, but it clearly highlighted problems inherent with third-party audits. I have written about my concerns with third- party audits in past issues, and though I conduct audits as part of my services to the food industry, I am well aware of the problems within the system. 

Here are some of the key issues mentioned in the Times piece and how we, as an industry, can address them.

Expertise in the Field, Processes or Product Being Audited – The Times reported that one of the auditors sent to the PCA plant was “an expert in fresh produce, who was not aware that peanuts were susceptible to salmonella.”  It is imperative that auditors understand the products and processes they audit in addition to understanding the audit process itself. Firms around the world have been recognized as having the expertise to conduct audits to certify that a company meets the requirements of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). In the food industry, especially in Europe, Asia and Africa, ISO certification is an important part of doing business. Yet, I have been in many food plants with ISO certification for quality (ISO 9001), food safety (ISO 22000) and environmental concerns (ISO 14000) that received certification from auditors who were experts in car batteries and electric light bulbs.

Auditing is a Business –  According to the Times piece, “auditors are also usually paid by the food plants they inspect, which some experts said could deter them from cracking down.” I can’t verify that some auditors or audits are more lenient because they want to keep a plant’s business. However, I can say that I have been in plants that proudly showed me past audits and bragged about how well they did. After I finished my work, I vowed never to eat their products due to the plant’s conditions. The auditor is not providing the client with good service if he or she fails to perform a rigorous check.

Follow-up – “Even when audits do turn up problems, it is up to the discretion of food companies to fix them.” Unfortunately, when most auditors complete an audit, their job is done. One element that should be part of all audits is corrective and preventive actions. If the plant has no history of follow-up, that should be on record for the auditor. In the case of PCA, private audits uncovered a number of problems at the processing plant. However, it is not apparent that the plant took rapid action to eliminate the cause of these problems.

One of the points that emerged in the advisory board chat was the need to get away from scores on audits.  I had an excellent audit teacher back in the early 1980s named Allen Katsuyama. He designed an audit format with three columns: Observation, Recommended Action(s) and Corrective Actions. Ideally, the completed form would be returned to the different groups within the company with instructions to fix the problems. Unfortunately, one of the most common questions asked of auditors is “What do I need to pass?” Passing is not the issue. Ensuring safety is. It does not take a major sanitation issue to create a problem. 

I encourage food safety managers and others concerned to take a look at the Times article and start thinking about solutions. This issue will elicit a great deal of discussion in the days to come, so be prepared to get involved. 

Did you enjoy this article? Click here to subscribe to Food Engineering Magazine.

Recent Articles by Richard Stier, Contributing Editor

You must login or register in order to post a comment.

Multimedia

Videos

Image Galleries

Fabulous Food Plant: Paramount Citrus

Learn more about this fabulous food plant in Food Engineering's article, found here.

Podcasts

Burns & McDonnell project manager RJ Hope and senior project engineer Justin Hamilton discuss the distinctions between Food Safety and Food Defense as well as the implications for food manufacturers of the Food Safety Modernization Act.
More Podcasts

What was your favorite part of FA&M 2014?

View Results Poll Archive

Food Engineering Magazine

Food engineering magazine 2014 april cover

2014 April

Catch a preview of the Powder and Bulk Show in this April 2014 edition of Food Engineering. Also, be sure to check out a coffee stick making a real stir and a major advancement in the the pet food industry.
Table Of Contents Subscribe

THE FOOD ENGINEERING STORE

Food-Authentication-Flyer-(.gif
Food Authentication Using Bioorganic Molecules

This text provides critical tools and data needed to augment routine food analysis and enhance food safety by aiding in the detection of counterfeit, and potentially deleterious, foods.

More Products

Clear Seas Research

Clear Seas ResearchWith access to over one million professionals and more than 60 industry-specific publications,Clear Seas Research offers relevant insights from those who know your industry best. Let us customize a market research solution that exceeds your marketing goals.

Food Master

Food Master Cover 2014Food Master 2014 is now available!

 

Where the buying process begins in the food and beverage manufacturing market. 

Visit www.foodmaster.com to learn more.

STAY CONNECTED

FE recent tweets

facebook_40.pngtwitter_40px.pngyoutube_40px.pnglinkedin_40px.png