Auditing the auditors
Although auditing schemes are competitive, they are all working toward the common goal of elevating the safety of the food chain.
Numerous GSFI-based food safety schemes are in effect these days. All of them relate to various aspects of the food supply chain—from logistics to transportation to storage to retailing and more. The most critical ones are designed for food production.
Consequently, food and beverage manufacturers must weigh many factors when choosing the right GFSI scheme. They also must consider just as many or more factors to determine which auditor can best help them achieve GFSI certification.
According to FDA, 1,336 certification bodies (CBs) are in the third-party auditing business. “That said, there’s still room for growth, as many more companies can use and benefit from this service,” says Jim Cook, food scientific and regulatory affairs manager at SGS North America in Fairfield, NJ. “Competition between CBs and GFSI program scheme owners is strong, but across the industry, the focus is more on food safety than self-promotion.”
George Gansner, director, marketing and business development at IFS, asks, “What should companies be looking for? The answer is, ‘It depends,’ since it’s not a one-size-fits-all situation.” That means a company first must decide what it considers important in a certification body and make a selection from there.
“Unfortunately, many times, I hear about companies focused on getting a nearby auditor to save travel costs or simply wanting a low-cost solution. But you get what you pay for,” Gansner states. “Instead, the manufacturer should get the best auditor, not the nearest one. FDA can shut down a company, so as a part of a senior management team, I’d be concerned about getting the best auditor possible—one who will dig deep and help the company get a thorough and effective result.”
Rick Stier of Consulting Food Scientists in Sonoma, CA says a number of factors should influence the selection of an audit firm. He thinks manufacturers should not have to adjust their quality, safety and sanitation programs to meet irrelevant and unnecessarily costly audit requirements outside the scope of their operations. He prefers schemes that are the least prescriptive, such as FSSC 22000 or IFS. “The auditor should focus on evaluating whether what the company does [in terms of safety and sanitation] is effective,” adds Stier.
Bob Strong, senior consultant, assurance services of SAI Global in St. Louis, MO, says over the last 20 years, the need for third-party food safety auditing has increased across the spectrum, from farms to processors and through distribution.
However, there’s a shortage of qualified people in the food industry—specifically, auditors with a combination of education and experience in the field they audit. “Their education should be in food science—biology, chemistry, dairy science, meat science and so on,” says Strong. “For example, a degree in food packaging is now required to audit food packaging processors.”
But that degree isn’t always enough. According to Strong, education in agriculture, agronomy and animal husbandry is needed if someone is going to audit farms and orchards, and an auditor’s education, in whatever discipline, should be combined with at least five years of experience working in the industry he or she is employed in.
John Kukoly, general manager of BRC Global Standards, Americas, says his organization is very particular about matching each of its BRC Standard auditors’ knowledge and skill set to the specific type of plant being audited. “We expect our auditors to be able to walk into a manufacturer’s facility and know what every piece of equipment does and how it works. For instance, if an auditor’s expertise is in dairy, he or she would not be allowed to audit a seafood packaging plant.”
Preparing for a GFSI certification audit typically starts over a year ahead of time, since manufacturers must understand and assess which scheme is the best fit for their organizations.
Once a scheme is chosen, additional tools, such as root cause analysis, internal auditing, HACCP, corrective action methodology and the like may need to be developed. Investing in a training course can significantly reduce the time for, as well as improve the outcome of, an audit.
Once you’ve selected the right GFSI certification body for your company’s needs, you must make sure your facility is audit ready. Why? In 2014, Walmart asked all GFSI-benchmarked scheme owners to offer unannounced audits, says Barbara Levin, senior vice president and co-founder of Safety Chain Software in San Rafael, CA. (Other retailers also now demand that manufacturers to be audit ready.)
“It’s important to ensure your food safety and quality team can effectively prepare for audits in a way that will be thorough while not disrupting daily operations; provide complete, accurate data, records and documentation; and allow you to be audit ready on demand,” she explains.
Many food and beverage companies use technologies to help automate and streamline GFSI program management and audit readiness. “Today’s food safety and quality professionals want to spend their time managing program, not paper,” states Levin. “They want audits to be a validation they’re doing the right things—not an exercise in gathering boxes of documents and hoping they’re what the auditor is expecting. Plus, they want to instill confidence in their customers by passing unannounced GFSI scheme audit protocols. GFSI compliance and audit-readiness technology solutions can help achieve these goals.”
An audit needs to add value, and not simply serve as a confirmation of whatever a site chooses to do. “It should be an audit that assesses the site against best practices on a global scale,” Kukoly notes. “Audit programs that lack oversight and rigorous compliance programs are too general or simple and are merely an exercise intended to deliver a certificate.”
Kukoly says an audit that includes highly skilled and qualified auditors, coupled with a measuring mechanism that seeks high-level compliance, benefits not only the industry as a whole, but consumers as well. This has been shown in some recent studies conducted by universities and industry partners.
Gansner cites a study conducted by the University of Rostock in Germany and commissioned by the creators of the IFS Food Standard. “Respondents reported an average 17 percent reduction in food recalls, 27 percent reduction in customer claims and complaints related to food safety and food quality, 51 percent reduction in regulatory issues and 40 percent reduction in product error and defect rates,” according to Gansner. “We also conducted a similar study with our IFS Logistics standard for storage and distribution in conjunction with US Foods and the University of Michigan, and the results were similarly excellent,” he adds.
As Cook sees it, an important first step for any company is the selection of an audit program that aligns with its market. For instance, if a manufacturer’s customers are in the UK, it would be logical to choose a BRC audit. On the other hand, with an ISO system, such as 9001 or 22000, FSSC 22000 is probably the best to be audited against.
“Then, the manufacturer should find a company with an auditor who is qualified, available and in the desired location,” adds Cook. “Bringing an auditor in from another country can create problems if there are language or culture barriers.”
Most audit companies are competitive, so “be wary of any audit company that quotes an unusually high, or low, cost,” Cook warns. “A very low price may seem like a good deal, but this could also signify inexperience and should be questioned.”
Although auditing schemes are competitive, they are working toward the common goal of elevating the safety of the food chain. “As the expectation of auditor technical competency continually increases, and individual schemes come closer together in their requirements, it is more likely individual auditors will become category experts and audit against more than one scheme, rather than being generalists. In the end, food technology knowledge is the prime success factor,” concludes Kukoly.
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