By Lauren Hakes, Technical Director, Alomora Group – providing management services to Partner Companies Wellpak, Ackio and Elision
I’ve been working in the industry for over 16 years and have been involved with audits ever since the beginning. I’m lead auditor trained and while the course taught me how to determine compliance or non-compliance against a standard, it also taught how to deal with auditees and the correct audit protocol. The audit protocol is extremely important. It makes the difference between whether an audit is a useful and ‘pleasurable’ experience (audit and ‘pleasurable: making inverted commas work for their money) or something that has to be endured and got through.
Over the years, I have found there are a few keys things which can make the audit process easier and more successful.
Whilst compliance to the standard you are being audited against is the key, the presentation of the site is vitally important: first impressions count. In several audits I have led, the auditors have commented on the fact that if they arrive to a clean, well ordered site, they feel that they will not find much wrong elsewhere. House- keeping details matter; it’s a strong indication of how a site is managed in all its aspects.
Being organised is always viewed by the auditor as a sign that the site is keen to support the audit process. One of the ways I have found to ensure that this message is clear at the start is to have all the files required during the audit ready in the meeting room, properly catalogued and easy to access when needed.
Compliance is measured in several ways but written procedures must be in place to ensure processes and practices are controlled in the correct way. In the simplest of terms, procedures say what we do and the audit is about questioning and testing that we do what we say. This is why it is extremely important for operations and technical to work closely and for operations to ensure technical are consulted and informed of any changes to procedures and processes. Under the pressure of day to day activities, practice and documented procedures can drift apart; continual review and communication is paramount. Fundamentally, audits are simply a formal recognition of what happens on site every moment of the day, they are not meant to be a misleading snapshot of what doesn’t happen in reality.
It is vitally important for the site’s record keeping to be accurate and comprehensive. During the audit a traceability test will be carried out to ensure the site is able to trace the product from the grower to the customer’s depot. During this exercise several different records will be required. Good record keeping demonstrates that the site is clear about what is required and why they are doing it. These documents will be examined carefully by the auditor to check that all the correct information is being recorded regarding food safety, legality and quality, for example. These records must demonstrate that if any issues are found during routine checks the appropriate action has been taken and documented. Good recording keeping is achieved through ensuring members of staff are thoroughly trained and records are continuously updated. They are ‘live’ documents. Blowing off the dust prior to an audit is hardly good practice and, anyway, increasingly, audits are unannounced.
Having a good pest contractor helps. This is one area where I do not like to have any problems found during an audit. Pest contractors are employed for their specialist knowledge and the site should only have to carry out any recommendation raised during their routine visits. It may seem like a small part of the audit standard but a poor pest contractor can cause a site several non-conformances.
Training is a critical part of compliance. This is not just about the auditor being satisfied that the member of staff in question has had their training documented but that staff are carrying out each task and are completely clear on the correct way of conducting it. The result of this is good practices, discipline and record keeping. Once again, a continually monitored practice: stay ahead of it and audits will be routine.
External and internal audits are a vital tool in the fresh produce industry. They provide valuable feedback on processes, procedures, training requirements and practices. Internal audits also have an additional benefit. By inviting members of the operations team to assist in the audit, it can bring awareness and understanding of why the requirements are in place. With understanding comes buy-in. It helps to ensure all key members of staff are focused on the important factors in maintaining a safe, compliant and efficient operation.
The great thing about being audited is that it supports confidence in systems, processes and procedures and any improvements. Each auditor comes with insight into different approaches and this can provide you some really useful ideas about how to improve things even further. I always ensure I have a pad of paper and make lots of notes, which we go through as a team afterwards to see what fresh ideas we can use.
Every external auditor has a slightly different approach within the framework of the overall standards. They may have certain criteria they concentrate on. It may be a focus on labelling, or hygiene, for example. It is part of the rules that you are only allowed to have the same auditor for three years in a row before they’re changed. This prevents relationships from forming and the audit becoming a less independent assessment. Also it prevents sites only concentrating too much on what they know the auditor will focus on and being less vigilant on other areas.
I believe that everyone wants to do a good job and wants to know when they have done well. There’s no reason why an audit can’t be pleasurable – to take pride in a job well done.
My trainer once told me that during one audit he was undertaking he found a problem with one of the compliance forms. Taken aback and clearly desperate not to fail, the manager being audited promptly ate the form in front of the auditor to destroy the evidence. Apocryphal? Possibly. But perhaps I could add ‘humour’ to ‘pleasurable’ in the auditor’s vocabulary?