Food Safety Audits - What To Do Next?
When an internal food safety audit reveals holes in your safety and sanitation processes, take heart. Considering the frequency of foodborne illness outbreaks, product recalls and food poisoning lawsuits, identifying potential problems before they occur is a good thing. Fixing small issues prevents them from ballooning into major incidents involving alienated vendors and customers, damaged brand reputation, and regulatory violations.
The Stats Behind Foodborne Illness
The CDC reports that every year approximately one out of every six individuals in the United States experiences a food borne illness.
- About 48 million people become ill each year due to a foodborne pathogen
- Approximately 128,000 people require hospitalization
- About 3,000 people die due to foodborne illnesses
- Foodborne illness costs in the US are estimated to be between $14-$16 billion every year
The pathogens that cause foodborne illness are present in most food groups, from meats, to produce, to dairy products, and they pop up almost equally in processed and simpler foods. Foods, including safely cooked and ready-to-eat foods, can become cross-contaminated with pathogens transferred from raw egg products and raw meat, poultry, and seafood products and their juices, other contaminated products, or from food handlers with poor personal hygiene.
Begin with Good Manufacturing Processes
Regulatory compliance and Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Points (HAACP) programs entail Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs), all of which help achieve high level food safety processes. Common sense also demonstrates the value of GMPs across all parts of an operation, which include:
- Well-maintained facility exteriors
- Interiors with easily cleaned surfaces, proper ventilation, adequate lighting, restrooms, and potable water
- Sanitary equipment made of cleanable, food grade materials, designed for intended use
- Cleaning equipment, properly installed and maintained
- Preventing the spread of disease
- No sick workers or workers with open sores/wounds in processing areas
- Proper hand washing and personal hygiene
- Proper attire, including pulling back hair and wearing gloves, aprons, and uniforms
- Monitoring raw materials
- Confirming suppliers have their own food safety programs
- Developing written specifications for materials
- Inspecting all incoming supplies
- Written process management procedures that include dating, recording and properly storing incoming materials
- Implementing and documenting sanitation standard operating procedures (SSOPs) for food processing equipment cleaning and sanitization
- Proper labeling, storage, and documentation of any common allergens
- Pest control programs that discourage incursions
- A chemical control program that ensures proper labeling and storage of chemicals
- Preventative measures addressing contamination of products by foreign contaminants such as glass, plastic, hair, machinery parts, etc.
The Power of the Food Safety Audit
An FDA sponsored study investigated preventive controls addressing many food safety problems faced by food processors. Broad spectrum safety training, documentation of everything from cleaning to materials handling, and evaluation of procedure effectiveness all made the top of the list, as did auditing of food safety processes. Food processors owe it to themselves and their customers to make good use of audit outcomes to provide the best quality and safest foods to the public.
Far too many processors wait to find out about processing issues through outside audit reports. Effective internal audits comprehensively evaluate all plant hygiene processes, and generally follow the outline of Good Manufacturing Processes. Be proactive and make use of internal audit results that reveal how well-established food safety processes work.
Is Self-Auditing Worth the Effort?
Conventional wisdom dictates that gaining a truly unbiased (and thus most comprehensive) overview of food safety processes requires a truly independent and impartial judge. Nonetheless, never dismiss the power and value of the internal audit.
From public safety perspective, regular internal audits demonstrate the organizations’ responsibility to protect the public from foodborne pathogens. Internal audits also serve another purpose. In the unfortunate situation of a food illness outbreak, internal audits protect processors y creating a record of due diligence in ensuring hygienic practices. The upshot is possibly lower liability should litigation arise.
Handling Less Than Stellar Audit Results
A well-executed and well-documented food safety audit not only reveals the areas requiring attention, but also points to the best solutions for the problems at hand. The specific solution to a problem depends upon several factors, including the type and provenance of the problem. Here are a few best practices to keep in mind when executing an internal audit:
- Ascertain the severity of the problem
- Carefully monitor supplier quality, and consider requiring that all vendors sign agreements to comply with audit programs and standards
- If the problem is connected to a vendor, make contact and confer on how to proceed
- Consider how reengineering processes can cause major issues
- Put more emphasis on training for safety and regulatory compliance
- Improve preventative maintenance procedures
- Manage and track corrective measures
Although acknowledging the existence of a problem can make companies uncomfortable at first, it is better to recognize and address the problem before it becomes an even bigger problem, as a threat to public safety and to the survival of your brands.
-  http://www.cdc.gov/foodborneburden/attribution-image.html#foodborne-illnesses.
-  http://www.uvm.edu/newfarmer/production/Food_Safety/Value-Added.pdf.