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Food safety specialist Fortress Technology explores the benefits of staying ahead of an unannounced inspection by an external party, and the value of monitoring everyday risks by performing regular internal and external audit reviews.

From farm to fork, many food safety assurance systems rely on robust Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) programmes. But, how do you verify that the steps you’ve taken to ensure conformance to food safety standards are working? Can you wait until the next periodic audit, or should you act sooner?

Successful, industry-leading food manufacturers don’t wait for a crisis to happen before taking steps to improve their food safety culture. They regularly use audits to identify gaps and potential risks and verify the effectiveness of their internal controls to strengthen customer trust and satisfaction. Performed internally, or by a knowledgeable food safety consultant, a typical audit review can last up to three hours – dependent on the organisation’s size. A well-structured review can reveal the respective strengths and weaknesses of food processing practices, keeping unforeseen conformity surprises from adding further disruptive pressures to already complex, and sometimes fragile, food supply chains.

INSPECTION OR AUDIT: KNOW THE DIFFERENCE

The distinction between a food inspection and a food safety audit can get clouded. In food safety circles especially, the two terms are frequently interchangeable. They both help to improve operational performance. And they both assess conformance to set standards. There are, however, subtle differences.

A food safety audit is a systematic evaluation of food factory documentation to determine if food safety practices, programmes and related activities, including procedures and record keeping, are meeting expectations. Generally, an auditor looks at data over a period of time to see if positive or negative trends are developing.

Food safety inspections, on the other hand, provide a thorough physical review of a food facility to assess what is actually happening in production during a precise moment in time. This snapshot – typically lasting between two and four days – gives a realistic assessment of conditions. These can be both positive and negative.

When inspecting a Critical Control Point (CCP), an inspector may look for any potential contaminant events that if left unaddressed could prompt an investigation. When conducting an audit, qualified personnel will review the effectiveness of a HACCP plan and ensure it is being implemented correctly.

The Food Standards Agency evaluates the effectiveness of the official audit controls systems managed by enforcement officers and local authorities in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Although food safety audits are not a legal requirement, by conducting internal or external audits, food processors can be assured their processes are conforming to these defined food safety standards.

FAILING IS PART OF THE PLAN

Any failure can feel like the end of the road. However, in audit terms, a non-conformance issue simply notifies a food processor that something needs to be addressed in order to comply with food safety rules, regulations and supplier contractual obligations.

Poor record-keeping and non-compliance with established Food Safety Plans are some of the top reasons that food and beverage manufacturers fail their audits. When equipment and surfaces deteriorate, they can present a possible contamination risk. Auditing highlights these issue and ensures they are resolved before an inspection. Additionally, end-of-line inspection equipment can expedite the process of tracing a contaminant entry-point and correcting the non- conformance.

In order to assess performance and knowledge of good manufacturing practices, a Traceability Performance Assessment can also be conducted. This timed traceability recall exercise can be added to any GMP inspection and helps to promote food safety compliance amongst staff, highlights Phil Brown, Sales Director of Fortress Technology Europe.

When choosing an external consultant, look for professionals who are experienced and familiar with the latest regulations in your food sector, such as meat or dairy. It is also advisable to request customer references, notes Phil. “Other qualities to look for are good problem solvers. Food safety audit consultants should feel comfortable working unsupervised and monitoring everything from documentation processes to daily practices. And they should be able to do all of this without placing undue burden on your production and quality control teams and processes.”

BE PREPARED

An audit checklist should cover all aspects of production that affect food safety practices and HACCP compliance. Most auditors will expect to examine documentation, records, premises, practices, equipment, and processes. Signs of pest infestation, hygiene protocols, temperature control, and food handler and machine operative training and competence will all be scrutinised.

To assist food manufacturers, Fortress published a typical audit-conformance checklist in its latest Food Equipment Audits Whitepaper. Download a free copy here.

Post-audit, the successes and non-compliances flagged by the investigation should be examined by the relevant staff and auditing personnel. Once a course of action to address and prevent future non-conformances is established, food processors can implement these changes.

For inspection equipment, specific GFSI standards should be followed. Particularly the testing of industrial food metal detectors.

MOVING GOALPOSTS

Food safety audits play an essential role in supporting safe food consumption, brand integrity, regulatory compliance, supply chain management, risk assessment and prevention, and promoting operational excellence. Given the numerous critical control points in a processing plant, Fortress advises routinely and systematically revisiting potential hygiene and contamination hazards as part of a regular risk assessment and food safety programme.

As more good practice is adopted, the food safety goalposts will inevitably move. “Food safety is reliant on continuous improvement. Once any changes are reviewed and implemented, HACCP plans should be modified. This ongoing effort drives advances in processes and efficiency, as well as enhancing product quality,” emphasises Phil Brown.