By Allie Gallant
With a globalized food supply and the growth of global food safety standards, the need for qualified auditors around the world is exploding – leaving some wondering whether we can keep up.
Auditors play a crucial role in food safety.
They are the ‘watchdogs’, charged with ensuring businesses are adhering to the requirements of global food safety standards – not just on paper, but every day within their facilities. They are the eyes and ears of industry, and their presence is critical to maintain confidence in the integrity of standards and the safety of our food.
Currently, demand for auditors is outstripping supply, despite aggressive recruiting by certification bodies. The question is, why are we facing this shortfall? And how can we hasten a balancing of supply and demand?
In facing down the auditor shortfall, two main issues come to the fore: auditor training, and career development.
Food safety auditors need to be highly specialized. The ability to assess risk, communication skills, integrity, technical knowledge and practical experience all come into play.
To be effective they must also be experienced and knowledgeable within the industry sector they audit (bakery, poultry, seafood etc.) and it can take a long time to get an auditor properly trained on a new sector – even up to 2 or 3 years. These heavy on-going training requirements mean that auditors need to be pulled out of the field frequently and for long periods, limiting resources available.
Beyond limiting the number of available auditors, the massive investment of time and money required to expand an auditor’s scope of expertise can hinder career development. From the certification body’s standpoint, the ideal auditor will be highly mobile, not just in terms of travel, but also between industry sectors. It can be difficult for auditors to achieve this sort of broad expertise in the current system.
There is currently a high turnover of auditors globally. Stemming this loss of resources, while encouraging a steady stream of new auditors into the workforce, is a main strategy to address the shortfall.
In a recent interview with Rhonda Wellik, CEO of CERT ID LC, a global certification body (CB), Rhonda sums up the challenges facing industry; “Locating qualified auditors and completing the registration process for each auditor can be very challenging. It is the responsibility of each CB to assure their auditors are up-to-date and are in conformance with the requirements of the food safety standard the auditor is registered to conduct audits against,” says Rhonda.
Helping auditors achieve expertise in a broader range of food categories can be achieved through the development of university or college programs with specialization in auditing. Mentorship-type training programs are another strategy that CB’s use. Rhonda comments further; “Auditors that have a broad range of experience and knowledge in different categories are key players in helping to expand other auditor’s food categories. Auditors seeking to expand a food category attend actual food safety audits and learn from the experience and auditor conducting the food safety audit.”
However, as Rhonda points out, mentorship does have its own share of challenges.
“The most challenging is buy-in from the site that is undergoing the audit. Sites often feel that they are being inspected by an additional pair of eyes, when asked if the auditor-in-training could be allowed to shadow the audit visit.” Rhonda proposes more collaboration among CBs when it comes to training programs; in turn it could help to build auditor pools by increasing existing auditor’s food categories.
To increase the efficiency of training, there has also been a push to harmonize training approaches among schemes, reducing waste and duplication for certification bodies and scheme owners.
Beyond availability, the consistency and integrity of audits is paramount to outcome. We’ve seen what can happen when a breakdown in the watchdog role occurs by looking at the financial district. Some of those accountants and lawyers responsible for ensuring the integrity of financial disclosures played fast and loose with the books, for short-term gain. When the truth eventually came to the surface, the damage was already done, and the public at large paid the price.
Confidence in food safety standards relies heavily upon the integrity of audits – in fact their value is completely lost if auditors are not trusted to accurately monitor adherence to safe food practices or certification standards.
To further transparency in this regard, the Global Food safety Initiative (GFSI), a major driver behind global standards, developed an Auditor Competence Working Group to analyze auditor competencies and strategies to improve. In fact the most recent version of the GFSI guidance document (ver. 6) adds a requirement for an “Integrity Program” for all GFSI-certified schemes, whereby auditors and audit reports are systemically reviewed to look for discrepancies. Many scheme owners have already implemented their own Integrity Program, even before the official requirement comes into play.
Certification bodies and scheme owners have extensive quality control measures in place to qualify, evaluate and monitor auditors.
For instance, CERT ID LC uses a scorecard approach for on-going assessment. “Our strategy for auditor integrity is to review every report and create a scorecard for each auditor. Results from the scorecard are reviewed to identify trends; corrective actions are implemented and auditor calibration conducted, where deemed necessary. Our review program not only provides a mechanism for monitoring our auditor pool, it also benefits our customers as every report is reviewed in depth before being released,” says Rhonda.
Attracting and retaining more food safety auditors, as well as ensuring those auditors are performing their job at the highest level of quality, is one of the most pressing issues facing the food industry today. It was clear from my interview with Rhonda that auditors play a valuable role, ensuring 3rd-party certification schemes are properly validated. This check-and-balance role allows globally-accepted, benchmarked standards to gain further acceptance by retailers, consumers and sites undergoing certification. Without consistent auditing, variances of meeting a food safety standard may occur – putting consumers and brands at risk.
Rhonda emphasizes, “Through training, monitoring and calibration CB’s will continue to build auditor integrity in order to shorten any gap that may exist within an auditor pool.” She asserts, “All players in the food industry need to support the training and calibration programs operated by each CB, and the mission of the Global Food Safety Initiative – because without this, the industry will continue to see more events unfold like the E. coli crisis in Europe underlying how fragmented our supply chains really are.”
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