Part 1 of a 5-part series:
It’s inevitable that audits will befall food processing warehouses, manufacturers, distributors, and transportation facilities. It’s not necessarily a negative thing, though. They’re an extremely important part of the Food Safety Plan. Ask any Sanitarian or Quality Manager, and they will agree. They will also agree that knowing the four different types of audit can help make your business ready for any one of them.
There are three ways to classify the audits you will commonly come in contact with in Food Safety. Those classifications depend upon the relationship between the auditee and the auditor. There are audits that are created to provide verification of the practices and plans the company has in place. Some audits are there to be specifically for the distribution cycle and supply chain to make sure inbound or imported foods are thoroughly inspected and that those inspections are continuously validated in order to mitigate risk. Some audits are to review the whole Food Safety Plan that the facility uses all the time. Customer audits are in a class of their own, but most audits fall into these categories. No matter what category the audit falls into, they are all there to ensure your preventive control program with cGMPs, hazard analysis, evaluation program, verification with corrective actions, and validation system are firmly set to lower the risk a weaker process may post.
Being “always audit ready” is the goal here. The four levels of audits are there to make sure your food safety system, which includes pest control and prevention, is in top working order.
Internal Audit: This is an audit you impose upon yourself in order to make sure the preventive controls and cGMPs you have put in place are consistent and still being verified. It’s also a good time during this audit to ensure management is still aligned with the responsibilities of the QA Manager and Sanitarian – operationally and financially. This self-assessment is not only there to make sure your preventive practices are reflecting business objectives, but it’s there to weight the organizations weaknesses as well as their strengths in their own Food Safety Plan. It will also make sure mandatory and adopted standards are being adhered to within the organization. It will bring to light any gaps in quality control and give you the chance to course correct before a second- or third-party audit does it for you. Always be sure to document those course corrections and then, of course, add them to your Food Safety Plan. Read more about how to perform an Internal Audit here.
Second Party Audit: This audit can also be called a customer audit or a proprietary audit. It’s when one of your primary vendors or organizations wants to measure the performance of their contractor or supplier. It is therefore performed on the contractor or supplier by their customer – or by an unbiased party contracted by the customer. Just like an internal audit, a second party audit proves you are following certain standards, but this time you’re showing that you’re following your customer’s Food Safety standards – both in food quality and safety – in addition to your own. Since these audits fall under FSMA, they include not just that you’re following your Food Safety Plan but that the requirements in your plan also meet those of your customer’s. Ten years ago, this may have not been as important, but it is now. Falling short on a second party audit could make customers look elsewhere. That will hurt your bottom line.
Third Party Audit: Oftentimes, these audits are performed by an independent organization that is hired specifically to stress test a food safety schematic. Mostly these are for certification, but they can also be used when a company wants to create a QMS (quality management system) in order to comply with their schematic. It usually starts with a food distribution, warehousing, or manufacturing company bringing in an outside, unbiased company to train, consult, and perform the audit in order to confirm the company is in fact meeting the schematic’s standards. Sometimes the consulting, training, and auditing are done by three different companies. It can become complicated, but they are a very important part of the food industry. Not passing one could keep you from gaining the certification you were striving for and can damage vendor and customer relationships.
Regulatory Audits: The previous audits we spoke about are all concerned with quality and safety inside the plant and with interacting with customers and suppliers. The more important purpose, though, is to confirm that regulatory requirements are being adhered to. Food warehousing, manufacturing, and distributing is one of the most stringently regulated industries in the United States. The FDA, under FSMA, has more power than ever before when it comes to making sure our food facilities are safe. In addition, the USDA can also inspect (like with meat and dairy). The consequences of failing an audit from one of these agencies can be dire. Failing is documented publicly, and registrations can be pulled and production can be halted. Making sure a facility focuses on the first three audits (Internal, Secondary/Customer, and Third Party), they will be more likely to pass a Regulatory Audit. Remember, “always be audit ready.”
Having the knowledge upfront instead of last minute when you suddenly need it will help you stay ready for an audit. Proactively putting in place programs like Pest Prevention and Sanitation will not only make you ready for audits, but it will set you up for success in your business. Be sure the vendors and suppliers your facility utilizes and contracts with are focused on Food Safety, too. If they are not, your company can be at risk. So, keep in mind that you can audit your suppliers to make sure their Food Safety Plan is up to your standards just like they can audit you. It’s one way to protect your brand. Also, document, document, document. Having a precisely accurate logbook at every step of the food safety system is integral right now. That is something else you can and should demand from any company entering your plant. If everyone supports theirs and their vendor/supplier’s Food Safety initiatives, it will show in the audits.