During the pandemic, many parts of the food industry had to quickly pivot to keep the supply chain stocked with safe food. As things slowly get back to whatever the new normal will be, the food industry is learning which of those pivots, such as remote audits, might stick around.
Gwenda Jarrett, certification manager for AIB International, thinks hybrid audits — where documentation, policies, strategies and hazard analysis critical control point (HACCP) are checked and interviews are conducted remotely, but an on-site inspection still occurs — could stick around.
We caught up with Jarrett to talk about why she thinks that, what food manufacturers need to do to prepare for remote audits and how to make them go a bit smoother.
Gwenda Jarrett: When you actually do a full on-site audit, you spend a lot of the time in the office reviewing documents and records on screens anyway. We have clients for whom we do head office audits as well as site audits. We can now have representatives from the head office in New York and Dallas and California all on the same call. Normally, you'd have to physically go there, and then there’s jetlag and travel costs that can make it expensive.
QA: Why is it unlikely 100% remote audits (unless mandated by local laws or policies) stick around?GJ: During and after a 100% remote audit, auditors don’t necessarily feel satisfied and corporate want the independent and fresh eyes on the plant. The sites struggle. The unions kick up a fuss. Operators don’t want to be on camera, it’s noisy, you can’t physically see or smell things in the same way using a camera. As an auditor, it doesn’t feel satisfying. We’ll only use 100% in absolute crises.
QA: Certain certifications have different requirements when it comes to hybrid audits vs. 100% remote, such as the amount of time between the virtual and in-person portions of a hybrid audit. Why is it important for auditees to know these differences?
GJ: All food safety audits do require a minimum of 50% of the audit time to be spent on site, so there is commonality between the schemes. If sites don’t plan their audit or talk to their certification body they could be out of certification if the requirements are not followed. And then there are implications of not maintaining certification like restarting the certification process with FSSC or being on the uncertified clients directory with BRCGS. Not a place you ever want to be. So you've got to know the rules, understand the rules. Go talk to the certification body. They can explain the rules to you.
QA: Both hybrid and 100% remote audits are possible thanks to different information communication technologies (ICT) tools. Based on audits you’ve done, what are some tips for manufacturers when it comes to ICTs?
GJ: There are certain questions that the food manufacturer has to ask of the auditor. “If I let you come into my factory with a recording device, which we're not usually allowed to use, what are you going to do?” Have the auditor sign a document that they’ll only livestream, not record. When we do the remote audit, you invite us. Don't use the auditor’s Microsoft Teams, use yours. You don’t know who else will have access to it. Don’t send your HACCP plan or other key documents, unless you are confident that the data is secure. I’d rather you show me the plan. One, it’s big. Two, if you send me that via email, what if somebody hacks it? Security, confidentiality and data protection are absolutely vital. You’ve got to have, if need be, multiple firewalls.
GJ: They’re your documents. What if it’s a recipe? Your HACCP plan might have your process parameters, time, temperature, flow rates, pasteurization units, whatever. The site needs to be very protective of their data. Just because we're the auditor, there's no reason for them to give us things instead of just showing as they would on an on-site audit.
QA: What are some best practices you’ve seen to make these audits go more smoothly?
GJ: I audited this little company in Ireland. What they’d done is, they did a pre-audit. They got headsets for all the auditees. They all had an extra smart device. They got an extra headset that they took around and gave it to the operator so I could speak to them. I could talk directly to the operator and not through somebody else. They’d done everything they could, so the auditee felt comfortable. And that's what made it successful because this place was so noisy, and that's why they had this headset. It was almost as good as being there.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions such as: “Why do you need to see that?” or “Why do you need to see that document twice?” Keep the auditor to the audit plan. You made arrangements for somebody to come to the office or be online, make sure they stick to it. Just because it’s remote, don’t let the auditor not stick to the plan.
Make sure you ask for breaks. I was shadowing an auditor recently in India, I was on Teams, and they just kept going. I said, “Stop. Look at them. The guy just walked in with tea and biscuits and you’re still talking. Give them five minutes." Whether you’re on site or at a screen, the fatigue is still high.
This sounds simple, but don’t shut all the documents on the computer. I was doing an audit and they kept shutting the documents. Then they’d have to go back and it took three of four clicks to get back. I’d have to say, don’t shut it because I want to come back to it.” Keep things open if you can. It took so much extra time.
QA: What should food manufacturers keep in mind if they're nervous about hybrid remote audits?
GJ: It feels stressful, but it’s not. It’s not as bad as they think it’s going to be. Hybrid auditing works. It really does. You can say all you want to, but until somebody goes through it, then they realize it’s not that bad. Just remember, it’s your audit. It’s not the auditor’s audit, it’s your systems. Take your time. Make sure it works for you.