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    June 4, 2024

    Avoid Auditing Pitfalls: Top 5 Ways to Ensure Better Audit Results

    Few processes can inspire the kind of stress, anxiety, and exasperation that an audit can. In almost any context, the words “we have to conduct an audit” are enough to inspire everything from eye-rolls to indigestion, and that’s true whether you’re the one speaking them or the one hearing them. But in an industry where audits play a crucial role in everything from consumer safety to certifications and compliance, maybe it’s time to reframe the audit process and our relationship with them.

    The Food Safety and Inspection Services (FSIS) arm of the Department of Agriculture performed 7.7 Million audits in the last fiscal year alone. Once you consider the number of third-party audits performed by regulatory and certifying bodies like the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on top of your own internal initiatives, audits are hardly black swan events. 

    They also don’t need to be inherently negative! Going into an audit well-prepared and with a positive mindset can set your organization up for a wealth of benefits:

    • Protecting consumers and public health: Audits are designed to reduce the risk of foodborne illnesses by assessing and verifying adherence to food safety standards and can identify potential hazards, control points, and areas for improvement.
    • Achieving compliance and earning certifications: Besides ensuring compliance with legal regulations that govern the standards listed above, if you’re one of the many food companies that rely on third-party certification programs to demonstrate your commitment to safety and quality, audits are crucial to the process.
    • Continuous internal improvement: Internal audits keep you proactive when it comes to the ability to identify and address weaknesses in your systems. This helps you take corrective action before issues arise and generates crucial benchmarking data along the way.
    • Access to markets: Chances are high that at least some of the retailers and distributors you already do business with (or hope to, someday) require suppliers to undergo regular audits as a condition of doing business.

    The truth is, many of the auditing headaches food industry leaders experience are due to pitfalls that can be mitigated or avoided altogether. Let’s explore them here. 

    #1: A Lack of Planning or Preparation

    When an audit is imminent, don’t waste an opportunity to plan for success and prepare accordingly, and that begins with forming a clear understanding of what it means for your company to be compliant. 

    Whether you’re preparing for an audit that assesses your ability to comply with legal regulations, certification requirements, or internal standards, you should work to understand which applies to your brand and how your current performance measures up. With that baseline of internal understanding, you can work proactively to overcome the negative impact of thin preparation.

    Read More: Five Steps to Preparing for a Food Safety Audit

    If you haven’t established an internally organized audit team, take steps now to correct that. Assigning ownership of the audit process to a team of internal experts and equipping them to handle inspections and assessments of any kind is essential to proactive audit preparation. Your internal audit team should act as a point of access to required documentation, a central source of subject matter expertise for any regulatory guidance that applies to your organization, coordinate mock audit, and implement any improvements or changes those mock audits help surface.

    #2: Resistance to Change and Transparency

    Even in a best-case scenario, an audit will likely uncover an area or two that could benefit from a new approach or an opportunity to improve. Change is inevitable, and a culture that embraces it — and empowers the kind of transparency necessary to identify it — is an overlooked asset in the audit process. 

    Audits occur exclusively in an atmosphere of increased scrutiny, and that can be uncomfortable. Depending upon the conditions the audit was initiated under, it might even feel a little unfair, which can affect team morale and fuel a defensive approach. This is a mistake.

    A lack of transparency in the audit process limits access to necessary information and can trigger an unwanted chain of events exacerbated by resistance to change. The result can lead to delays in the identification of problems and encourages reactive, ineffectual solutions. A lack of transparency can also erode trust between auditors and the organizations they’re auditing, calling your organizations’ overall commitment to compliance into question.

    To avoid this pitfall, cultivate a culture of food safety and open communication within your organization. Recognize that food safety is an evolving mandate and process. Leadership must prioritize food safety by promoting open, honest, and proactive discussions about it.

    #3: Inadequate Internal Controls and Processes

    Until now, the pitfalls we’ve discussed are primarily cultural or systemic — work that, if neglected, sets the stage for more than just a failed audit. Now, let’s take a look at what makes up the “meat” of audit failure fears: a problem unearthed within the assessment itself, like:

    • Inconsistencies or delinquencies in food handling practices
    • Missed critical control points (CCPs) in your HACCP plan
    • Failure to properly document and record essential data
    • Increased risk of contamination or product safety issues

    Get the Guide: GS1 For Food Traceability

    What each of these have in common is a likely root cause of dysfunctional internal controllership. Poorly defined or inadequately enforced internal controls create gaps in your food safety program. Auditors look for these gaps to assess your ability to consistently meet safety standards. Taking steps to strengthen your internal controls by conducting regular self-assessments to test them before using the results of those assessments to regularly update your policies and procedures can keep you one step ahead of process-related pitfalls. 

    If you need a place to start, consider establishing a system for verifying compliance with your internal controls with regular inspections, data reviews, and employee observation. This will ensure you regularly review and update policies and procedures based on new regulations, best practices, and internal audit findings before the stakes are much higher.

    #4: Inaccurate or Incomplete Data

    Data pitfalls can take a few forms in a food safety audit. The most obvious will be where data and recordkeeping intersect. Inaccurate temperature logs, incomplete cleaning records, or missing training certificates can raise concerns about the reliability of your data, lengthen an audit, or cause an outright failure if the gaps in data can’t be accounted for or corrected. 

    As regulations regarding the collection and keeping of traceability data continue to evolve, there’s a compelling case to digitize recordkeeping systems if you’re still keeping hard copies. Doing so carries the added benefit of streamlining data access for audits, making it much easier to produce the necessary documentation and food safety data as it’s requested. Increased digitization efforts will necessarily require ramped-up data security. Failure to safeguard all of this information properly could compromise sensitive information and demonstrate a lack of control over critical data to auditors. 

    Listen Up: Debunking Cybersecurity Myths and the Importance of IT Collaboration in Food Safety

    Besides potentially opening you up to further scrutiny by auditing bodies, gaps in data security could also invite attention to proprietary information, supplier or customer data, or sensitive employee information by bad actors. Careful handling of food safety data doesn’t just set you up for audit success, it can help limit financial fallout, reputational damage, and unanticipated legal ramifications you may not have otherwise anticipated with a food safety audit. 

    #5: Ignoring Feedback and Recommendations

    The final auditing pitfall comes in the form of returning to “business as usual” irrespective of an audit’s results. Consider that food safety audits are about more than achieving a passing grade or positive assessment. They offer invaluable opportunities to assess your food safety program's effectiveness and identify areas for improvement.

    Watch This: Tech-Enabled Auditing: Conducting 1st, 2nd and 3rd Party Audits in a Post-Pandemic World

    Remember when we suggested that it might be time to reconsider the general framing of an audit and its purpose? Even if you can’t quite get there before you’re audited, it’s definitely worth trying to once an audit concludes. Auditors are experienced professionals with a keen eye for potential vulnerabilities in your processes, systems, and organization. Their insights and recommendations can (and should!) be viewed as:

    • A free consultation: You gain valuable feedback from experts who can identify areas where your program might be weak or could be strengthened.
    • A valuable benchmarking opportunity: Auditors might compare your practices to industry best practices, highlighting areas where you can elevate your food safety standards.
    • A competitive risk mitigation strategy: Recommendations often focus on identifying and addressing potential risks before they escalate into major problems.

    Ignoring these valuable insights can leave you exposed and vulnerable to future issues. If you embrace them instead, you won’t just demonstrate a proactive commitment to continuous improvement, you’ll reap the rewards of that commitment.

    Food Safety Audit Pitfalls Are Avoidable

    Believe it or not, relatively painless audits are possible — if you can commit to a proactive approach. To do that, you’ll need to equip your organization and team with the tools they need to manage, monitor, and collaborate across your supply chain. Staying a step ahead of regulatory changes and being nimble about updating your own processes to meet them, maintaining accurate and up-to-date records, and communicating with suppliers along the way can feel like a tall order, but with the right preparation, plan, and platform, it’s an order you can easily fulfill.

    A culture of compliance built with comprehensive, data-informed, and centralized tools go a long way toward getting it all done (and done right!) before another audit appears on the horizon. Our food industry partners rely on Trustwell to help streamline and standardize their supply chain while serving as a single, centralized source for everything they need to stay audit-ready. 

    See how FoodLogiQ Compliance can help you prepare for future audits with easily exportable and accurate documentation, audit trails, and supplier communication plans when you schedule a demo today.

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