Is remote auditing here to stay?
This is the safefood Podcast.
James: Hello, I'm James McIntosh, a specialist in toxicology with safefood and you're very welcome to another chapter in our food safety podcast series where we look at different aspects of the food chain on the island of Ireland.
In today's podcast, we are going to look at the whole area of food safety auditing, specifically the subject of remote auditing which has come into focus due to the current pandemic. I'm delighted to welcome Marie-Therese Sweeney who is a quality and hygiene systems consultant with over 20 years experience in the food industry.
Hi, Marie-Therese, you're very welcome.
Marie-Therese: Good morning James. How are you?
James: We're fine. Briefly, can you give us an idea of your background and the work that you're generally involved in?
Marie-Therese: Yes, indeed. Well, I am a science graduate from NUIG, but it was formerly UCG. So I won't admit to that's to how long ago that was, however, since then I have worked in the food industry for many, many years with Kerry Group in a number of their meat plants, the Garvey group, their SuperValu/Centra group down in the South West of the country. In my roles with them, I worked as quality manager, quality technician, worked in the micro labs, was the food safety trainer and auditor for those companies. And then after a number of years there, I took a year out and went to Australia to find myself. Found myself coming home and I set up my own business over 20 years ago. As you said, primarily in the area of food safety advisory work, training work, I'm a certified trainer with the Environmental Health Association of Ireland. so I run and deliver training programmes to their food safety, primary food safety course.
I work as a food safety auditor with a number of certification bodies, including Bord Bia and EIQA, and I also work with some private companies myself in my capacity as an advisor, doing training with them, implementing their HACCP plans, reviewing HACCP plans, acting as their internal food safety auditor if they are involved in any certification programmes, and generally a contact for them with matters of food safety.
James: So, it sounds as if you have a excellent experience in the whole area, I suppose, of food safety auditing as well. And a lot of our listeners might not actually know what's involved generally in food safety auditing. Can you just give us a brief background, what that whole thing involves?
Marie-Therese: Okay, well, food safety auditing in itself James, is basically an independent evaluation or an assessment of how effective a food business is implementing their food safety management systems. So, food safety auditing is relevant in all food businesses, small, medium and large, shops, restaurants, cafes, food processors, all would have some level of food safety auditing happening.
It could be where an external auditor comes in, like an environmental health officer coming in to do an unannounced audit of the food safety systems, or where an external person, a third party like myself, may come in to audit their business to a particular voluntary standard, such as the BRC, which is a British Retail Consortium standard, and the Q Mark for Hygiene and Food Safety. A lot of retailers, supermarkets would have that standard, Bord Bia Quality Assurance standard.
And basically it means where somebody comes in and they walk around the premises, they check the standards of structural hygiene. So, looking at the floors, walls, windows, doors, what the physical environment is like, also assessing the operational standards within that food business. So, how clean is the place being kept, how staff are operating to good standards?
And also then an assessment of the documented food safety management system, which is all about how, you know, it's written down, how do we implement food safety records that are kept around temperatures, cleaning, training? So it's an overall assessment of, I suppose, three basic pillars of the food safety management system and the structure, and the standard then depends on the type of business. The actual technical standard depends on what the business operation is.
James: Well, you mentioned that there are a number of standards. Does the business choose the particular standard or is a chosen for them depending on what kind of business they are, or what their market is, and so on, so forth?
Marie-Therese: It's a bit of both, to be honest. The, I suppose, retail groups can dictate a lot to suppliers what standards they have to have. The business sector might suggest that, you know in horticulture, for example, it's preferable I suppose that consumers might see the Bord Bia Quality Assurance label on their fruit and veg. It gives consumers, I suppose an assurance that there are checks and balances in place in relation to the produce that they're buying.
If you're a manufacturer you may dictate to your suppliers what standards they have to adhere to. So BRC is a fairly common one in the manufacturing sector. So it's a combination. And then some people just like to have a standard like the Q Mark for Hygiene and Food Safety which is an EIQA brand. Retailers tend to go for that one. It, I suppose, gives some sense of confidence to the consumers coming in the door that the premises has been independently assessed.
And these standards these, I suppose, voluntary standards are over and above the legal compliance standards that have to be there. I mean, with your Environmental Health Officers, Department of Agriculture, they have to be there, but these other voluntary ones, it's the combination of business either wanting to have it themselves or it being dictated to them by their customer.
James: And I suppose the concept of remote auditing is not familiar to me and maybe a lot of our listeners as well. What exactly is different then about remote auditing?
Marie-Therese: Essentially it is where the auditor does not physically go onsite to assess the standards in the business, that it's done from elsewhere.
James: So Marie-Therese, can you just describe some of the technologies that you actually use for remote auditing, maybe give us a description of the processes involved and the actual, I suppose platforms and programs that you use?
Marie-Therese: Yes, James, well, the process starts, I suppose with an initial phone call or Zoom call to the company. So I would contact them by either of those methods. We would have a conversation and I would explain to them what documents and records I'd like them to send on to me before I carry out the next phase of the audit. So for example, I might ask them to send me on a copy of their food safety policy signed and dated by the most senior manager. And I might ask them to send me on copies of pest control records, water test results, depending on the standard I'm auditing to and to the type of business that they are.
So when I've had the conversation and then outlined to them exactly what it is I need, I will then either send them an email listing out everything that we've talked about, and then they send that onto me, or they upload that using Dropbox is one method that one company that I'm working with are using. So they invite me and the company to enter Dropbox at which that company then upload the information to Dropbox, and then I can audit it through Dropbox.
Zoom is a way that we can also use it where a company can actually share documents live with me during a Zoom call.
Then the smaller businesses, more remote, and when I talk about remote here, I mean, geographically remote as opposed to remote audit remote, tend to possibly use WhatsApp 'cause they might have just have a mobile phone. They may not have the luxury of bigger devices.
And before, of course, any of that can happen what I have to just do is check with the particular business, do these things work? There's no point in me trying to get somebody to upload the documents via WhatsApp if they have a black spot in terms of connectivity.
So I suppose that that's the first process and they're the types of platforms that we tend to use. So once the business has uploaded that information via those platforms or whatever platform is agreed, then I sit down and review it at home through that method.
James: So it sounds like you're using platforms and programs that are ubiquitous now and commonly available, Dropbox, WhatsApp, there's nothing untowards, they are, you know, in terms of programmes that a company may have to buy in, et cetera, et cetera, so they can actually use technologies that are already available, I suppose, in the public space, is that right?
Marie-Therese: Yes, and I mean, if they're like me, Zoom, I never heard of Zoom until
James: Neither did any of us!
Marie-Therese: The 13 or 14th of March, so it's very common now and there's one other, I mean, some companies, and there is an audit body that I work with, Bord Bia, they have actually developed their own, I suppose, platform for producers to upload the information and it's accessible through a mobile phone device.
James: Is it seen as a, I suppose, an acceptable alternative to if you like, conventional auditing, where you have to be onsite?
Marie-Therese: I suppose, going back to your introduction James, the Covid-19 pandemic pushed this. I suppose basically there was a need seen for consumers to still have confidence in what's happening at primary producer level, because they would be reliant very much on other people going in to check and award standards to demonstrate compliance, and, I suppose, inbuilt assurance.
But obviously with Covid, we couldn't go physically to these locations to assess the level of compliance, but the marketplace still wanted that. So something had to be developed in order to bridge that gap and remote auditing is that bridge currently. So, to be honest with you, with the certification bodies that I work with, we're doing slightly different, slightly different ways of approaching this, but I suppose the first piece has to be making contact with the company, because you can't remotely turn up, you know?
So there has to be some kind of contact made. And I suppose it's very reliant on technology,
Marie-Therese: And that is an evolving situation, I suppose.
James: So just to clarify, Marie-Therese, the development of remote auditing is a consequence of the current pandemic, or was it there before and is it just that the current pandemic has really accelerated its evolution, if you like?
Marie-Therese: The concept was there. I know personally I have never actually carried out remote audits until this, until the pandemic. With some organisations it would have been something in the background. And I think what this has done has moved it on faster than otherwise may have happened.
And certainly with some of the audit bodies that I work with, there'd be quite a lot of the audit would involve sitting down in a producer's home, perhaps if they don't have an office, looking at a lot of paperwork, documents and records. That is time consuming, it takes up a lot of their time when their head is probably wanting to be out doing something else. And there was with a particular organisation, we had been looking at possibly doing that piece remotely regardless of pandemic. And the pandemic has now fast forwarded that piece to very good effect, I have to say, so far.
James: So I suppose it's like anything, there are advantages and disadvantages to remote auditing compared to conventional auditing, you might say?
Marie-Therese: Very, very much so, very much so. I suppose the advantages are certainly from an auditor and an auditee point of view, is that you're not spending as much time on a location looking at paperwork. And I suppose it would emphasise that piece because that can be, depending on the organisation I suppose, a small business, they find that difficult.
A bigger organisation who have the management team in place, who have the luxury of a quality manager or a technical manager to facilitate the audit, you know, they have the time to give to looking for records and looking for paperwork at a given time, but a smaller one or two person operation they would possibly struggle with that piece. So-
James: So, it's not necessarily suitable for all business sizes? Obviously, some would be able to accommodate more, that the bigger industries would be able to accommodate it better than others?
Marie-Therese: I think so. Now that's also, I suppose the biggest piece of this is access to technology.
James: Yeah, of course.
Marie-Therese: The user friendliness of the technology that's used, the ability I suppose, of the auditor and the auditee to use that effectively. What we are finding with some of the remote audits that we're doing is you hit black spots, particularly in a fully in a manufacturing environment where you've got insulated cold rooms, insulated packing halls that are refrigerated. Go in there, and devices don't like cold temperatures and moisture either. We had black spots when we try to take a walk, a virtual walk around an area like that. So that's a disadvantage. I would say maybe the auditees might disagree, but it's, so the technology is an advantage and a disadvantage I suppose, in some situations.
James: I presume it's evolving as well?
Marie-Therese: Very much so, James, and that's one thing I would say about all of this remote auditing process. It very much is an evolving process. You know, in any audit process you have to, there's a certain amount of trust has to be there. You could argue that the remote process could potentially allow auditees to give you misleading information, misleading photographs. It's, look it, they can do that anyway, I think. You'd like to think that they're not taking photographs of very swanky premises from Google and all that kind of stuff to, you know, give you a false, I suppose, representation of their premises from a physical point of view, you know?
James: Yeah. And I suppose in that sense what would you predict for the short to medium term? And we presume that this pandemic is going to evolve over the next year, and hopefully there'd be some kind of getting back to normal or some kind of normality. Would you predict that the whole concept of remote auditing will evolve further? Or will it fall away maybe, if onsite visits become possible again?
Marie-Therese: I think the process will evolve and in some cases it will continue. I think there is probably no getting away from the fact that certainly in certain food businesses I think, you physically have to go there to see what's happening. I think that that's a given. There's probably scope for a more blended audit approach whereby you could do a bit of both.
James: A bit of a hybrid, is it?
Marie-Therese: Yeah, that's something that we're working on with one audit body whereby they're accepting the fact that documentation policies and, you know, training plans, and a certain amount of documentation can be uploaded up front regardless, but that you do need to go and actually physically see the premises at some point.
And it may be that you might do a remote visit on one audit cycle, and then the following audit cycle you know, physically go on site. It can also depend I suppose, on historically how a business has performed in audits prior to that. If they've been consistently good and achieving high grades or high levels of compliance historically and they're committed, you know, there may be, I suppose, a situation there where they may not need to have as many site visits.
So there's lots of, I suppose, potential options out there, James. And look, I suppose also audits, external audits, there's two types I suppose. It can be unannounced and announced audits. So this would work well for an announced audit. Unannounced, you know this, it's limited. Either which way, any audit is only a sample at a moment in time anyway. If an organisation know that you're coming, be it remotely or otherwise, there's a certain amount of preparation work that would be done anyway.
So I think into the future there's certainly scope for this to continue. And I think the feedback that we've been getting from the audits that I've been carrying out so far from the auditee's perspective, the companies that we go to, they've been quite positive about it.
James: So I suppose, Marie-Therese, from the perspective really of a smaller food business, what are the key things that they need to consider, I suppose if they're wondering, you know, "Is remote auditing something that's suitable for me, and that would perhaps make life a little bit easier for me, et cetera?" What do they need to think about?
Marie-Therese: Well, I suppose first to James, they need to consider, have they got the technology that will support the remote audit process? But that just might just be a smartphone. And, you know, I would imagine that most people have a smartphone, but I can't make assumptions, I'm an auditor, but that they have the technology to enable the audit to happen.
Now I suppose, they also need to be sure that they're in an area that there's no black spots when it comes to a communication technology, that there's wifi available, that there's, that we can actually get connectivity.
I suppose also, there are, we have found that even with somebody having the devices available and having the connectivity, that in certain types of food business we might encounter black spots like an insulated cold room, packing halls, that kind of stuff where there's refrigeration involved. Mobile phones and devices don't tend to like cold and damp environments.
So, they might be just some of the practical elements that a business just would need to consider. And they'd also need to consider that they have the time to facilitate the process.
Obviously, if you go onsite, somebody has to have the time to go with you as well. But, this remote, fully-remote audit process does rely on somebody in the food business being fully available with the technology to be able to walk you through, if, say for example, if I needed to do a WhatsApp video part of the call that somebody could walk around and show me what I'm looking at, not their feet and not their face and not up their nose, you know, that they know what they're doing.
Obviously, we could test that as a part of the process but just simple, small things like that. It's, but it is possible to do and we have been doing it. And the feedback that we've been getting from small businesses has been positive, d'you know? So I think there's definitely somewhere for this into the future beyond Covid.
James: Thanks, Marie-Therese for a very practical run through the whole area of remote auditing, and I think you gave a fantastic description really of what's involved from both the auditee and the auditor’s perspectives, and including the advantages and disadvantages compared to conventional auditing, and what food businesses, particularly the smarter food businesses, may need to consider with regard to how applicable this would be to them.
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