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    How to choose a food safety auditor – Critical Characteristic 4, Handling Data

    Julia Stewart:
    Hello, this is PMA PR Director Julia Stewart, and welcome back to PMA’s audio blog, “Ask Dr. Bob” where we’ve been talking with PMA’s Chief Science & Technology Officer Dr. Bob Whitaker about the critical characteristics to consider when choosing a food safety auditor.

    Ok, Bob, we’re in the home stretch on this series so tell us what we need to know about the last of the four critical characteristics, data handling. 

    Julia, data handling is not always so obvious when thinking about food safety auditing, but is becoming increasingly important. Almost every food safety standard I know of requires keeping significant amounts of data available for inspection by third party or government auditors.  Keeping this data demonstrates that you measure and verify your food safety program daily. And, if a customer, partner, or regulator asks to see your food safety program, you need an efficient way to show them that data. 

    What do I mean by “data”?  Well, data includes your food safety audits, and any microbial testing you do of water supply, equipment sanitation testing, environmental testing, or product testing.  Pre-plant risk assessments, pre-harvest risk assessments, or internal audits or inspections you might perform are data. You can extend this out to include verification records, farm or ranch maps, SOP’s — as far as you want to go.

    So, a legitimate question to ask an auditor is about the systems they have for handling data. Some have very sophisticated systems, others do not.  You may want to use a specific vendor of your choosing for data handling or build your own data handling system; that’s your choice, but you should have a data handling system.

    What characteristics are important in any good food safety data handling system?  Are there specific attributes growers and processors need to consider?

    Well, I’m not a computer techie so I’d advise the listeners to check with an IT expert to be sure the system has all the security and back-ups needed to protect data integrity, and to make sure that it is easy to use and move around in.  Then, you can consider a few other things:

    First, you need to have a system that permits you to store your food safety data in an organized fashion.  You want to be able to access your audits or microbial data easily by either time or location.

    Second, ideally you’d like to give your customers access to the data using a password protected mechanism.  Being able to share your data with customers is an absolute must these days, so they can understand your strengths and how you address any deficiencies via corrective actions.  If your customer needs to have the data electronically transferred, you want your auditor’s or your own system to be able to accomplish this transfer automatically and efficiently.

    Third, the best data systems will permit you to use your data.  That sounds intuitively obvious, but I don’t think many in our industry actually use the data they have to their best advantage. Far too many of us have an audit or microbiology tests done and we look at them, make sure they are alright and then file them away. If designed properly, a data base system should permit you to sort through data and identify trends. It’s also useful to be able to automatically create graphics based on microbiology results from sanitation swabs so that you can identify equipment requiring additional care, or improved practices for effective sanitation. There are a number of potential benefits from using data to identify trends.

    Last, there are increasingly new technologies out there today and you want a data system that can use these technologies as appropriate for your needs.  For instance, GPS-based graphics that can access satellite maps of your farm or ranch and can be tied into food safety data are not only useful for you as an operator but are nice to present to customers and regulators.
    Bob, this brings to a close this series on choosing a third party auditor.  Is there any last piece of advice you would like to leave our listeners with?

    You know, food safety audits continue to be a flawed but necessary tool in our food safety programs.  Selecting a good third party auditing company that matches your food safety needs, or developing a positive working relationship with the third party your customer mandates can only help improve your company’s performance. It is your responsibility to make sure you maximize the value you get from your audits.

    Thank you, Bob. You have certainly outlined the importance and benefit of choosing an auditor with care and purpose, and once again you’ve got us thinking in a completely different way.

    Thanks very much for listening, this concludes our series on choosing an auditor. If you would like to submit a question for Dr. Bob to cover in a future blog post, you can email him at askdrbob@pma.com

    Until next time!

    One Response to “How to choose a food safety auditor – Critical Characteristic 4, Handling Data”

    1. Andy Moreno Says:

      Food Safety data can include internal microbial investigations.
      These can include internal PCR tests of raw product, product wash water, environmental samples and finished product samples.
      This data, along with any external corroborative testing by third parties, combines to give an auditor a complete picture of a plant’s operation and food safety data.

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