By Alex Hanley
Food safety audits, when done right, can be both fair and effective – but in order to optimize the experience it takes effort from both the company and the auditor.
While it’s fair to say that everyone is shooting for the all-important certificate and a great score, companies that understand the true value of a good audit look beyond the certificate. They view the Certification Body (CB) as a supplier of a service, and they believe that getting good service and fair treatment is non-negotiable. They manage the process.
There are several things that any food safety manager can do right now to set your team and company up for a smooth audit experience. A good audit experience is good for all involved – including the one doing the auditing.
Here are five perspectives to keep in mind during and after your facility audit.
Take a few steps in the right direction today by reframing how you think about certification services and setting the stage with your supplier of service.
Before the audit:
1. Reframe: Look at your certification as a service that benefits your company.
Many dread or fear audits, so much so that they forget who’s paying the bill at the end of the day. This sets the stage for a dynamic where the auditor can – if they are inclined – get away with just about any behaviour in the plant. Plant personnel believe they are expected to get through it, not resist, and comply with an auditor’s wishes at all costs.
That is not how things should be. Certification is a service, and as such, the people providing that service deserve as much scrutiny as any of your other service providers like your pest control company, the maintenance contractors, the chemical supplier, and so on.
Now, you can’t ask the auditor or the CB to compromise their integrity because you’re paying the bill – that’s not part of the contract. But there is a line between ‘maintaining integrity’ and ‘carte blanche,’ which is why this next step is important.
2. Set Clear Expectations
If your expectations are not written out, you’ve left the door wide open. It’s not fair to you, and not fair to the auditor. It’s hard to say they didn’t deliver when you haven’t been clear about the parameters. It’s best to work with two sets of expectations because the audit is a very important part of the certification process. But, the audit is not the entire process. We also need to look at the overall certification process as well.
Therefore, you need two lists: one for the certification process and one that pays special attention to the certification audit itself. Make a list of expectations and think of the list as a specification, describing what is acceptable and not acceptable. That’s what “specs” are for – to clearly defining the attributes of a good product or service.
For example: You expect the auditor to be professional. You expect them to stick to the standard. You expect them to understand your product category. You expect them to be respectful of your people and of your time.
3. Train Your Team (and your CB!)
Once expectations are clear, discuss them in detail with your team. Ensure everybody is aware and aligned on what is acceptable and not acceptable during an audit, and what to do if the audit goes sideways.
4. Evaluate Your Auditor and Your CB
You went through the trouble of setting expectations, and you’ve made it through the audit. It may seem daunting, but honestly it doesn’t have to be any more complicated than listing what you liked and didn’t like. The important thing is to get in the habit – you’ll get stronger over time.
Also: Don’t be afraid of being positive. A lot more gets done with honey than with a stick.
Try to be as objective as possible in the way you present things on paper, simply because it makes for a much smoother and constructive conversation later. The purpose is not to beat anybody on the head.
You’re doing this in the spirit of working together to improve everybody’s experience during the audit. Audits don’t have to be painful for anybody, and painful audits don’t make food any safer.
After the audit:
5. Provide Feedback
CBs routinely send surveys about the quality of their services. As with any survey, response rates vary according to the level of confidence people have in the process. This is a little different because you are in charge of the process. You can talk about what you want to talk about, and you can avoid any topic you don’t care to address. Again, what’s important is to get in the habit. Don’t be surprised if your contact at the CB is unaccustomed to receiving feedback like this: it is not a widely used practice in the industry.
You might be wondering if the CB or auditor will retaliate if provided with a poor review.
Fear of retaliation is a valid concern. It is a risk. The question is, what will you do about it? Hide in fear, decide to accept the unfair treatment, or add it to your spec for your supplier of certification services?
In this case, you can plan for the worst and hope for the best. Planning means ensuring and confirming with the CB that all their auditors understand that retaliation goes against their code of conduct, and they don’t tolerate it.
You’ve got a lot of business imperatives and only so many hours in the day. There is no need to be working any harder than you must. You owe it to yourself to remove as much friction as you can, where and where you can.
A smooth audit process is not a pipe dream. Take a few steps in the right direction today by reframing how you think about certification services and setting the stage with your supplier of service. It’s your facility, your team who are on the receiving end of the audit and the day is yours to win.
About the Author:
Alex Hanley, CEO of Navigate Food Safety, is a food safety expert with over two decades in the food industry, most of those as a food safety auditor. He has a deep understanding of food safety management systems and certification and has performed more than 1,000 HACCP, quality systems, and food safety audits covering multiple categories, in addition to traveling the world designing, implementing, and auditing best practices for manufacturers of every scale.