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    How to choose a food safety auditor - Introduction

    Julia Stewart:
    Hello, this is PMA PR Director Julia Stewart, and welcome back to PMA’s audio blog, “Ask Dr. Bob.” I’m here with PMA’s Chief Science & Technology Officer Dr. Bob Whitaker. This is the first post in a multi-part series on choosing a food safety auditor.

    In previous posts, Bob, you’ve talked about the role of audits in the food safety equation. Can you give us some more detail on how to go about making the most effective auditor choice?
    Julia, before I get into the actual steps of choosing an auditor, I’d like to cover a bit of background to help us set the stage.

    In the last decade, we’ve expended a great deal of energy talking about food safety audits in the produce industry.  Every grower, harvester, distributor, or processor I meet has an “auditor story” about how a government or third party auditor showed up at their facility or farm, and proceeded to ask inappropriate questions, or make recommendations inconsistent with commonly accepted food safety practices.  I certainly sympathize when I hear these; it wasn’t that long ago when I was working at a grower/shipper and had to experience the same frustration. 

    But I look at food safety audits a little differently than many. I know there is always pressure to “pass” an audit so you can supply a specific customer, but an audit is really about having an extra set of eyes and ears to verify that you’re following your written food safety programs. It’s a chance for you to measure your entire program, and an opportunity to learn how to improve your performance going forward.

    An important point is that undergoing an audit is not necessarily just about getting a great score. Can anyone really say that an operation scoring 95% is safer than one scoring 90%? It’s not the score that matters, but what you missed and then what you do to correct the deficiency. For instance, an operation that loses 10 points on an audit because a worker was observed not washing his hands after using a restroom is likely a riskier operation from a food safety perspective than one that loses 10 points because their food safety logs are dated improperly. Both deficiencies are clearly important, but their immediate impact on the safety of food can be vastly different. 

    Bob, so you’re saying producers should view a food safety audit as one tool they can use to measure the effectiveness of their programs – but I have also heard you call food safety audits an “imperfect tool”. 

    Absolutely.  Audits are basically a snapshot in time of your program because they look at what you’re doing the day and the very instant that the auditor is observing your operations and reviewing your documents.  And let’s face it, most operators know what questions the auditor is going to ask and what documents to have available. It’s like taking a test when you’ve already been given the answers.

    I’ve seen operations that proudly display their “Superior” audit certificate yet could stand some improvement in their day-to-day operations. And, how many times do we read about a food manufacturer involved with a foodborne illness outbreak who had been audited a month earlier and received an excellent score. It’s the difference between dressing-up for an audit versus living your food safety program every day.  An audit should be conducted so it fully evaluates your food safety systems and your risk-based food safety program. The value is in either knowing you are performing up to your program, or that there are some areas where you need improvement — then you need to implement those improvements.

    Living your food safety program every day, I like that a lot.

    Thanks Bob. You’ve definitely presented a different way of looking at food safety audits and linked this perspective as being consistent with taking responsibility for the safety of our products. We look forward to your continuing posts on this subject. Thank you listeners for joining us!

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