Food Safety Audits Explained

 

What is an audit?

An audit is proactive, systematic and documented approach to gathering evidence to verify standards for food safety and legal compliance are being achieved. Audits are not a legal requirement, but they impoy Audits Explainedrtant for a number of reasons. They identify potential food safety hazards, demonstrate a management commitment to food safety and support a positive food safety culture.

 

What skills and knowledge are required to conduct an audit?

A successful audit relies on a competent auditor with appropriate skills and knowledge. The auditor will need to demonstrate competency in behavioural, interpersonal, communication, organisational, thinking and evidence collecting skills1. Essential knowledge will include HACCP, food safety management approaches, current food safety legislation, and industry best practice, and current and emerging threats to food safety.

 

What are advantages and disadvantages of using a checklist?

A checklist provides a systematic framework for the auditor to conduct the audit and the scope will normally include the premises, people, products and practices1.  They are many advantages for using a checklist.  It provides consistency, supports auditor due diligence, acts as an aide memoir and optimises time1. But some would argue a checklist deters the auditor from using their ‘own knowledge to identify non-conformances1.

 

Planning the audit

Factors influencing the planning and duration of the audit include size and complexity of operations, premises layout and condition, range of processes and foods produced, and amount of documentation and records to review. The auditor, where applicable, will also review previous audits or inspections report prior the audit.

 

Conducting the audit

The opening meeting is an opportunity for the auditor to introduce himself or herself and meet key personnel. During the meeting the auditor will explain the audit process and its objectives, and confirm the scope and depth of the audit, including timings1. The auditor will request documentation and records are made available for inspection. This opening meeting is also an opportunity for the auditee to ask the any questions, communicate any immediate food safety issues and/or inaccessible areas.

 

Looking and observing are important evidence skills for an auditor1. The auditor will look at documentation, records, premises, practices, equipment, and materials. An audit will also look for signs of pest infestation, cleanliness, temperature control in practice, and food handler training and competence. Evidence collated will include written notes on visual inspections and observation, and supporting photographic evidence. Key words are also important, for example, ‘show me’ can be used to ask a food handler to demonstrate a process or practice1.

 

Questioning and listening skills are important for collecting evidence during the audit19, but should not be used as a method of interrogation1.  The auditor will be trained to use open, closed, hypothetical, systematic questioning techniques to elicit important information. For example: what happens to food on display after service? Questions are also a good method for collecting evidence where practices are not observable at the time of the audit. For example: describe how you would clean and disinfect a meat slicer? Misleading, complex and/or confrontational questions should never be used during the audit1.

 

The auditor will be trained in appropriate listening techniques to clarify and enhance the information obtained from questioning during the audit. Listening techniques will include: passive and second party listening to indicate you are listening, active non-directional to encourage general information and active directional for specific details1. Active listening will also help the auditor to evaluate the auditee feelings during audit, including tonality, facial expressions and body posture. 

 

Documentation to be inspected during the audit will include standards for prerequisite programmes, HACCP flow chart and plan, verification procedures, and any other supporting documentation validation for control measures and CCP’s.

 

The auditor will at look the premises’ external and internal design, construction, size, layout and maintenance. Key areas will include suitable ventilation, facilities (e.g. toilets, changing room and lockers, washing for food, hands and equipment), storage (food, packaging and cleaning chemicals), designated areas for preparing raw food, and clean and dirty processes. Materials used in construction will also be inspected to ensure they can be effectively cleaned and disinfected, and are not a source of contamination. The auditor will look for environmental controls to ensure pests are denied access and harbourage to the food premises.

 

Equipment will be visually inspected and checked during the audit. The auditor may ask food handlers how equipment is operated and cleaned to ascertain competence. This is particularly important for complex equipment such vacuum packers and meat slicers.  The auditor may ask the auditee to dismantle equipment to look for visible signs of internal contamination. Equipment instructions may be checked to ensure manufacturers’ guidance for operation, cleaning and maintenance are being followed correctly.

 

The condition and traceability for food products and packaging materials will be checked the audit. This is done visually by checking date codes or through organoleptic assessment (except taste). Supplier details will be checked with name and address as the minimum requirement. Contaminated (e.g. mould, pest matter, bacterial) or food past its date code will be discarded immediately with the auditees consent. Photos will provide ‘hard evidence’1 for non-conformities.

 

What food handlers say they do in practice can be very different to what is actually observed in reality. Trained food handlers are not necessarily competent to handle food safely. Key areas of observation will include temperature control, personal hygiene, cleaning and disinfection, controls in place to prevent or reduce of cross contamination. The auditor will ask probing questions on frequency of monitoring, corrective action and record keeping for PRP’s and CCP’s. 

 

The closing meeting is an opportunity to thank the auditee for their cooperation and to recap on the audit objectives1. It is a time to present the main findings of the audit starting with the positive first, then followed by any non-conformances – some may require immediate action. The auditor must permit responses from the auditee to the findings as evidence for conformance may have been overlooked. Emotional behaviour may arise at this sensitive time and manifest in conflict or distress19. If finding are challenged the auditor must objectively present the facts in a calm manner. The auditor may agree with the auditee targets for improvements in food safety.

 

The audit report

The report is a record of the audit and is the means of communicating the results of the food business audited. Its content must be factual, accurate, justifiable and non-judgemental19. Written content should be jargon free, simple to read and understand19. Specific information on non-conformities must include what was found, where and when, and why. The report should contain objectives and target dates for corrective actions. Where applicable the report must include examples for success in achieving conformance.

 

The structure of the report will start with the organisation name and address, name and position of auditee, details of the auditor, and date and timings of the audit1. An executive summary will present the main findings of the audit, including non-conformities, auditee cooperation and any limitations. Non-conformities will be listed in order of severity starting with critical first and refer to audit standards and legal compliance. Hard evidence must be referenced throughout the report. These may include transcripts of conversations, photographic and microbiological reports. Remedial actions will state if these are desirable or essential and include target dates for completion. The report should have advice in challenging the findings or contact the auditor for further guidance. Once the report has been proof read for grammar and technical competence it must sent immediately to auditee.

 

Closing out1 the correct implementation for corrective action is the last stage in the audit process. A follow-up audit is likely where a major or critical non-conformances has occurred, especially contraventions in legal compliance. Minor non-conformances may only require written confirmation corrective actions have been completed.

 

We offer a wide range of food safety courses to support training of an auditor. These include effective auditing and inspectional skills, HACCP and food safety. You can join other candidates on an open course in Milton Keynes or London. Alternatively, we can deliver an onsite course at your premises anywhere in the UK.  Contact us now to find out how we can support you in find the right training solution.

 

  1. Griffith, C. (2014). Effective Auditing & Inspection Skills, 2nd Edition. Highfield Publishing Ltd. Doncaster.UK.

 

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