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All over the world, food industry organizations closed their doors to non-workers as a way to stop the spread of the virus. Auditors were also left outside the door and 2nd party and 3rd party audits were simply postponed or canceled.

 

COVID-19 has impacted the food industry as no other event in history particularly because how fast and global were the consequences. Last month’s article was about the impact of COVID-19 in the food industry with a particular emphasis in changing from a reactive mindset to a proactive mindset. This month is a about a particular effect that was not addressed, audits.

All over the world, food industry organizations closed their doors to non-workers as a way to stop the spread of the virus. Auditors were also left outside the door and 2nd party and 3rd party audits were simply postponed or canceled. It is also known that inspections and controls from regulators and food safety authorities were also impacted, which increases even more apprehension with the level of control over food safety issues.

But this month the article is about the impact on audits. For this I invited 3 good friends to share their experiences and insights. They all are very experienced food safety professionals with decades on the road doing audits. There was no real guideline to their contribution. They just shared how they saw COVID-19 impacting audits and it is interesting to observe their different approaches on the topic.

 

Please share your own experiences in comments!

 

Enjoy the reading.

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Filippo Camerini – 20 years experience in auditing

 

Covid has been challenging our business-as-usual attitude and will probably affect how we live and work for some time; in some ways possibly permanently. Remote activities developed massively in these last weeks and this also affected auditing techniques.

 

Standard auditing is to be out of question because of these four relevant points:

  • It is not fair to expect auditors take risks travelling and/or visiting factories,
  • It is not fair to force suppliers to welcome external guests and face the associated risks,
  • Every country is enforcing different limitations for foreign travelers and visitors,
  • Travelling logistics can be daunting.

 

Nevertheless, certification schedules move forward, deadlines get closer and buyers keep on putting pressure. Many practitioners in the sector of quality management and food safety (myself included) have been puzzling about redesigning our control and monitoring activities. I explored many scenarios of remote monitoring, but I have not got to any set of tools capable of achieving the level of security I want to provide to the client.

 

In my analysis I focused on how I behave when I physically face the lines.

 

One of my key points is not an activity but rather trying to understand how confident the Quality staff is in explaining the process and answering to technical questions. Although the production or the maintenance managers are there and trained in food hygiene, I do not like them to take decision (and responsibility) in the quality and food safety area. On the contrary, I want to be sure the Quality Manager and I are on the same side against all possible deviations and I feel comfortable when all key processes are under his control, when quality and safety concerns are protected from production urgency. I look for a clever and powerful buddy.

 

Auditing a factory is basically evaluating how good its Quality Management Dept. is in technical skills and how strong its position is over all other processes.

 

If it is hard to find such a trusted buddy by skype, it is true that once the staff, the processes and their hot points are known, it is possible to operate remotely and collect evidences of how the Quality Management face every-day deviations.

 

On the other hand, isn’t this familiarity exactly what we try to avoid? This is the reason why we change auditors visiting the same factory.

 

So far, I am still in search of a way for conducting a professional and reliable remote audit.


Ana Paula Correa – 22 years experience in auditing

 

The year was 1998 and there I was, following a remote 2nd Party Food safety audit in a poultry slaughtering company. The audit was carried out by a team of auditors from a Middle-East Government. They had already received all documentation, photos of the production and were asking questions to the audited company by phone. An employee would stay on the fax machine and send the missing documents (the line dropped several times!). The remote audit lasted 2 days but 60 days passed between receiving the first questionnaire, followed by exchange of emails and sending documents by mail, fax and e-mail until the remote audit itself, by telephone conference, and without the synchronized video calls – back then, this technology was not available in the middle of the production area.

 

20 years later, in 2018, I was able to follow and perform remote audits much more technologically. This technological improvement allowed auditors from another part of the world to follow live footage of the production, request a specific part of the process to be checked in more detail (Zoom in for example), or even live interview production collaborators, in addition of course, to track the system support documentation by shared screen.

 

During a remote audit, the auditor cannot personally tour the plant. In this case, a video call in the same time can be his/her eyes to help in judge the facts and judge the conformities and non-conformities. In this case, a good internet connection is essential.

 

We should not forget that Audit is a process, and as so, it must be well mapped to obtain the desired result. It is very important to remember that an Audit “is a systematic, independent and documented process for obtaining objective evidence and evaluating it objectively to determine the extent to which the audit criteria are fulfilled” (requirement 3.1 of NBR ISO 19011:2018). Thus, the remote audit process should include some important resources:

  • Good Internet Connection: it is essential to facilitate communication while auditing and to optimize time and resource
  • Key personnel: all staff in the areas and processes raised in the Audit Plan
  • Available documentation: all documentation in any kind may be available to be shared, independently from being a fulfilled record, a photo, an email, a procedure, etc.

 

The costs related to remote audits can be attractive once there are no travel-lodging expenses. But before choosing a remote audit instead of a face to face audit, it is important to pay attention to the risk assessment, as the scope of the audit, the risk of the process and product produced, the maturity of the organization’s food safety programs, history of product recalls, absent of a critical situation throughout the organization, check if the production is operating normally, and the main goal of the audit.

 

During the current pandemic, remote audits has been an alternative in food industries due a travel restriction, for both first party and second-party audits. For third-party audits, which the main goal is to obtain certification in each Standard or Scheme, face-to-face audits still prevail.


 

Aloysius Dsouza –15 years experience in auditing

 

Current Reality

  • Covid-19 is changed how we do business around the world
  • It has disrupted Operations & supply chains
  • Has disrupted lives
  • More importantly put a full stop people to people interaction vital for the very functioning of a community.
  • Has also affected physical site audits

 

How has the food industry responded ?

  • All non-essential staff were asked to Work from Home (WFH)
  • The Operations staff work in staggered shifts
  • No Visitors are permitted (including auditors)
  • Hand-wash & Sanitation are primary focus for each individual in a family or in the factory
  • All travel from home city to another city is restricted unless in absolute emergencies

 

How were Risk Assessments managed?

  • All turned to Digital technologies to find an answer
  • Some use telephonic conversations to understand risks.
  • Others with more access to the internet use other technologies such as the Conference-Video calls from platforms such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams or Google Meet etc. wherein Screen share was an option to review documents apart from face to face meetings
  • Still others used higher tech such as ‘Google AR headset’ for workplace use or
  • Live streaming of events, though very few companies agree to such invasive systems to conduct an audit
  • More classic method to forward date-stamped photographs in advance plus documents which are reviewed by the auditor.

 

Pros & Cons of Remote auditing :

 

Pros:

  • Convenient
  • Saves money from the all the travel & logistics

 

Cons :           

  • In the absence of physical presence, this audit is based purely on mutual trust .
  • Time consuming as documentation and photographs need to be reviewed prior to a Desk audit
  • Video conferencing limitations as the platforms are not available with each vendor.
  • Infrastructure limitations – Fibre or broadband internet would be needed at the vendors end ; uninterrupted power supply is required; ability to do screen share to review documents / videos remotely.
  • Some vendors have limitations on screen share or providing  live streaming

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This article was written with Ana Paula Correa, Aloysius Dsouzam, and Filippo Camerini

Disclaimer: The information contained on this article is based on research done in the last months and the authors personal experience and opinion. It is not intended to represent the view of any organization they work for or collaborate with. The authors will not be held liable for the use or misuse of the information provided in the article.

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