Food Safety

08/12/2021 | Sesotec

Food safety audits: what to expect when pursuing certification

Food safety audits are a fundamental step in receiving certification from an international food safety organisation such as BRC or IFS. Here is what food manufacturing companies pursuing certification for the first time need to know about the auditing process.


Third-party food safety certification is increasingly becoming a necessity for food manufacturers looking to do business on an international scale. Because food law and the rigour with which it is enforced can vary from region to region, international food safety certifiers use audits to determine whether a company’s food safety system is appropriate and effective. If the food safety system is found to be ineffective, audits are the baseline for determining which steps the company must take in order to achieve compliance and receive certification.




What does a food safety audit involve?

One of the first and most critical steps to becoming certified with an international food safety regulator is to undergo an on-site audit. In a process generally lasting a minimum of two working days, a food safety auditor representing the certification programme travels to the food manufacturing facility and performs an in-person assessment of potential hazards and critical control points. This involves inspecting both the production line itself as well as performing an audit of documentation relevant to food safety.

Based on this initial visit, the auditor will then draft a list of requirements that the food manufacturer must fulfil in order to obtain certification, as well as recommendations for how to proceed. Some common steps which food manufacturers must take in order to become certified with international food safety regulators include:

  • Executing food safety training workshops for employees
  • Hiring a dedicated Food Safety Systems Manager
  • Replacing or repairing any equipment unfit for food contact applications
  • Installing additional product inspection and contaminant detection equipment at critical control points along the production line
  • Installing automated temperature monitoring devices
  • Implementing and providing documentation of an approved sterilisation protocol
  • System updates to any quality control software
  • Providing documentation proving the safety of any food contact materials
  • Implementing a comprehensive record-keeping and documentation protocol
  • Establishing an effective internal audit system

After the food manufacturer has implemented the necessary changes to their food safety management system, the auditing firm may perform a series of follow-up visits. Once compliance has been confirmed, the food manufacturer receives their certification.




How long does it take to obtain an international food safety certification?

The Global Food Safety Initiative estimates that the approval process for their internationally recognised food safety certification programmes takes an average of six to nine months from the initial audit to the day certification is granted. IFS also provides a handy online calculator that can help food manufacturers estimate the minimum duration of their initial audit for IFS Food Certification 6.1.


How much does international food safety certification cost?

The upfront costs involved in obtaining food safety certification from a third-party auditing firm vary depending on the size of the manufacturing facilities and the scope of the production process. For the initial on-site audit, food manufacturers should expect to spend between $5,000 and $10,000 USD, not including additional travel costs.

After the initial audit is finished, food manufacturers are tasked with financing the changes necessary to achieve compliance. This includes both one-time costs, such as purchasing and installing more in-process inspection devices, as well as on-going costs, such as hiring an in-house Food Safety Systems Manager. The total out-of-pocket spending involved depends heavily on the preparedness of the facilities prior to pursuing certification.

Following approval to receive food safety certification, food manufacturers must also pay on-going inspection and re-certification fees on an annual basis.


Overview of the on-site auditing process

Once a food safety auditor begins an on-site visit, there are five different phases they must carry out before they leave:

  1. Allocating roles and notifying participants – Upon arrival, the auditor identifies the parties responsible for supervising their visit and providing access to the information, plant areas, documents and any people necessary to the audit. Additional observers from the food manufacturing company may also be present for the audit. These roles should be allocated in such a way that they do not influence the audit and all parties should be expressly notified of their role.
  2. Opening discussion – The auditor briefly informs all involved parties about the goal of their visit, the methods they will be using to audit the facility and any preconditions for a successful audit.
  3. Gathering information – The auditor collects information about compliance and food safety culture at this facility thru various methods including: on-site observation, randomised tests, process simulations, interviews with employees and reviewing documents.
  4. Evaluating information – The auditor compares the information gathered with the food safety criteria laid out in the certification programme to evaluate whether the facility conforms with these requirements. They then draft their findings and determine which, if any, steps must be taken to achieve compliance.
  5. Closing discussion – The auditor presents a summary of their findings to the responsible parties. They also provide the food manufacturer with an opportunity to ask questions as well as recommendations for how to proceed.




After the on-site audit, a more detailed audit report will follow. This report contains a complete overview of the scope of the audit, what was observed, which food safety criteria were met, which were unmet, as well as areas for improvement.


Internal food audits

In addition to on-site audits by representatives from the certifying organisation, international food safety certification programmes often also require that food manufacturing facilities have an internal auditing programme in place. Here is a brief overview of the internal audit requirements from two leading international certifying organisations, International Featured Standards (IFS) and the British Retail Consortium Global Standards (BRC).


IFS V7: Internal audit requirements

An effective internal auditing system is a knock-out requirement in IFS Version 7, meaning compliance is necessary to receive certification. The scope and frequency of internal audits should be based on risk assessment (5.1.1) and each department is to be audited by a competent person who is independent of that department (5.1.3).

The results of internal audits, including any corrective actions, shall be communicated to senior management as well as parties responsible for the audited activities. All corrective actions are to be verified (5.1.4).

Areas to be audited include production and storage premisses, external areas, in-process controls, ongoing hygiene protocols and foreign material hazards (5.2.1). Additionally, the company’s HACCP plan shall be verified at least once yearly, in part thru internal audits (2.2.3.8.5)


BRC 8: Internal audit requirements

BRC Version 8 requires a scheduled internal audit programme with a minimum of four yearly audits that cover all activities at least once annually. The precise frequency of audits for each activity is to be based on a risk assessment and the scope of the audits must include prerequisite programmes such as pest control, food fraud prevention programmes and any procedures implemented in order to achieve compliance with BRC (3.4.1). Internal audits are also considered to be a means of confirming the effectiveness of the company’s HACCP plan (2.12.1).

Internal auditors must be appropriately trained and sufficiently independent from the department they are auditing (3.4.2). They should document both conformities and non-conformities, include objective evidence of the findings and report the results to the responsible parties (3.4.3).

Additionally, separate inspections for the areas of hygiene (cleaning, housekeeping) and equipment performance must be performed and documented at least once per month (3.4.4).


Conclusions

As the global food supply chain becomes more complex with each passing year, international certification programmes and the food safety audits they perform have an important role to play in protecting consumer health and corporate trust all over the world.

For many food industry companies, obtaining certification from international food safety auditors is a time- and resource-intensive pursuit that could involve overhauling many aspects of their production line. But the short-term costs involved in third-party food safety certification pale in comparison to the long-term positive returns. The results of an initial food safety audit provide companies with valuable insight into their processes and food safety management system as well as concrete feedback about where they can be improved. Furthermore, once compliance has been achieved and certification granted, companies can gain access to lucrative international markets and leading global players in the food industry.




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