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    Building a Food Safety Culture, Limits of Audits


    Julia Stewart:

    Hello, this is PMA PR Director Julia Stewart, and welcome back to PMA’s audio blog, “Ask Dr. Bob.” PMA’s Chief Science Officer Dr. Bob Whitaker has been discussing in recent posts the various aspects of building a food safety culture and challenging the industry to look at food safety from a different perspective.


    Bob, I know you get asked about audits a lot. What is the role of audits in a food safety program and how do audits fit into the comprehensive culture you’ve been discussing?


    Bob Whitaker:

    Julia, as I have referenced in previous posts, sometimes the food safety discussion in our industry is over shadowed or somehow equated with discussions on what audits are best and how many we have to do.  While I understand the frustration many producers feel regarding the multiplicity of audits they are asked to endure, this all-consuming furor over food safety audits is unfortunate because  audits are only a tool; a snapshot in time, actually a snapshot in time that you get to pose for. Realistically, taking an audit is like taking an exam when you know when the exam will be scheduled, you already know all the questions that will be on the exam, and you already have all the answers too. How many of us wouldn’t want to have had that situation back in high school or college?  I am guessing we might have made better grades!


    Minimally, food safety audits are a mechanism to demonstrate to yourself, senior management and customers that you are following your food safety program, and that you can verify it through your audit that day.  At their best, food safety audits are excellent training opportunities for employees. Audits offer a chance to have an independent set of eyes critique your program, and are a time when you can step back from all other responsibilities and critically look at your food safety program and how it is being implemented… it can be an important learning experience. 


    Julia, you’ve heard me say before that risk assessments and risk management are key to an effective food safety program. Audits won’t ever take the place of conducting a comprehensive risk assessment and then designing risk avoidance and risk management programs to respond to that audit. Audits won’t ever take the place of having a corporate-wide food safety culture, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. 


    As discussed earlier, there is a change going on right now in the United States on how audits are viewed.  Food safety crises like the Peanut Corporation of America incident have called to light issues regarding third party certification.   Today there is a great deal of attention being paid to the use of globally benchmarked standards and third party auditor accreditation.  Benchmarking can be a useful means to drive harmonization of food safety standards,  so long as it does not lead to everyone moving to a least common denominator as a food safety or audit standard.  Many have pointed out that there is already a great deal of commonality in the content of existing food safety standards, and my experience in the industry tells me that is largely true.  Perhaps what we really need is the recognition of equivalency between various audits and standards by buying groups, thereby giving producers an array of food safety schemes to choose from – and eliminating some of the redundancy where multiple audits covering the same basic content are required.  If the various standards and audit checklists could be recognized as equivalent, suppliers could chose a third party and standard or scheme based on relevance to their operations, service quality and price, and then supply those results to their buying partners for verification of their food safety programs.  It seems that the real culprit that leads to frustration from the supply side is variability in how food safety audits are executed and standards are interpreted.  FDA has issued guidance on conducting third party certification audits and many third parties have adopted globally recognized ISO 65 accreditation – this provides a roadmap for certifiers that covers everything from auditor qualifications and training to corrective actions procedures and conflict resolution systems, to help bring about standardized and measurable performance in their operations.  This might offer a good solution to the variability the industry has seen over the last 10 years, and ease some of the frustration.  



    Thank you, Bob. I know our members are looking for relief from the current environment of audit fatigue. Now you’re helping us understand ways to overhaul the system that’s resulted in audit proliferation,  but more importantly you’re helping us to understand where audits properly fit within a food safety program – they are one element, but they aren’t the be-all and end-all.


    Thanks very much to our listeners, please join us again next time!

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