Without a COVID-19 pandemic end date, stricter plant visitation limitations will remain in place, making it difficult to plan for the next in-person audit. Advances in software have made remote auditing a viable alternative to onsite visits, allowing food and beverage companies to continue their routine certification processes and manage potential risk.
As companies have taken precautions during the pandemic to keep employees safe and protect production, remote auditing makes it possible to ensure quality and food safety standards are still being certified through a third-party certification body without introducing further risk of exposure. The two processes are essentially the same; both include a records review, key employee interviews, and process inspections.
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According to Brian Neal, technical manager for Eurofins Food Assurance, remote auditing is not a compromise and still delivers the same level of food safety as an onsite audit. However, companies must first go through an assessment process to ensure they have the right tools and resources to conduct a successful remote audit.
Rather than assuming an audit can’t be conducted due to precautions being taken by the plant or that it won’t work because records aren’t properly digitized, Neal says food companies need to ask if this is a viable option.
“A self-assessment contains a few questions about your programs, facility, and processes, and if there have been any changes to how you operate in the last 12 months,” says Neal. “You will also want to look at your previous year’s audit.”
Once the self-assessment is submitted, a technical team will review, respond, and determine if the necessary systems, procedures, and record-keeping are digitally available so that an audit can be performed remotely or if a company should stay with an onsite audit.
“During its self-assessment, let’s say a company said it made changes to its HACCP plan. We’ll want to know what those changes are so we can review them to decide if they can be audited remotely,” says Neal.
The significant difference between an onsite and a remote audit is the documentation will be digitized and shared over a private portal. Keep in mind that all of your sensitive audit data is safely maintained on a fully-protected server. Certification can be granted based on a successful audit. In some cases, though, a future onsite audit might be needed.
Once a company knows an audit can be conducted remotely, the next step is to upload any required documents, such as HACCP and sanitation plans and allergy programs, to an online portal.
According to Shamonique Schrick, FSQA solutions architect for SafetyChain Software, a list of required documents will be made available with the option to upload digital files or scans/JPEGS of hard copies. Most importantly, all files will be kept confidential, with only the assigned auditor having access to them.
Similar to an onsite visit, auditors will then go through those files with a company representative.
“Once the checklist is complete, you’ll have your closing meeting just like you would in person, where the auditor will make recommendations,” says Neal. “This will also serve as an opportunity for the auditor to ask more detailed questions if required, and in some cases, go on to recommend an onsite audit based on the remote findings.”
“Other than conducting self-assessment questionnaires and uploading documents to a shared portal, remote audits are very similar to onsite audits. Beyond that, the documentation process and flow of the audit are the same,” Neal says.
The same qualified people who have supported a previous onsite audit should be involved. Remote auditing is a new and more efficient process that should become common even after COVID-19 is no longer an issue.
As auditors transition to performing their jobs remotely, there are helpful steps food manufacturers can take to accelerate the learning curve on both sides.
Here are five important pointers for in-plant personnel:
While remote audits may seem foreign now, leveraging this option allows your team to deliver the same standard of food safety without disrupting the new measures your facility has in place. After all, navigating the pressures of COVID-19 isn’t about compromise; it’s about continuing to produce safe, high-quality products.
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