How to Ensure Food Safety with Remote Audits During COVID-19 and Beyond

Shamonique Schrick
Contributing Writer


In uncertain times, it’s important for Food & Beverage companies to reassure their customers that food and safety standard are being met consistently. Yet, COVID-19 has introduced unique challenges for undergoing and performing audits, from social distancing to risks associated with travel. Unfortunately, waiting until the threat of the virus is completely gone to have an audit performed could cause your certification to lapse, which could risk the loss of important customers.

With limited resources, including fewer people on the plant floor, there’s also a risk of program failure due to lack of oversight. Preparing for audits and maintaining your certifications forces you to tighten your programs and ensure you’re staying on track with safe, quality-driven operations.

It’s now more important than ever to make sure food safety risks are at a minimum. While there is a vaccine available, it’s still in high demand. Many people are still weary of going to hospitals or other medical care centers, and with medical personnel still overwhelmed in some areas, the safety of the food supply is paramount.

Fortunately, remote audits have become an accepted alternative to traditional onsite audits for many Food & Beverage companies. For instance, the Global Food Safety Institute (GFSI) approved remote audits in the summer of 2020, allowing for the use of Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) to be leveraged in remote audits performed by CBs.  

Having remote audits allows for a fresh set of eyes on your processes. These outside perspectives can be invaluable for spotting vulnerabilities which might otherwise go overlooked.

If you think a remote audit could be right for your company either now or in the future, here are some factors to keep in mind.

Steps to Include in a Remote Audit

In many ways, remote audits are the same as those performed onsite. You’ll still need the ability to share program documents and records, and you’ll also need to be in constant contact with your audit team. The same care and preparation time that goes into your onsite audits should go into a remote one.

Here’s a basic overview of how the remote audit process takes place:

  1. Notify your CB to let them know you’re interested in a remote audit.

  2. They’ll perform a risk evaluation to see if you’re able to undergo a remote audit and ensure that all audit objectives can be achieved.

  3. The technical team will perform their own review and either approve or deny the remote audit.

  4. You’ll upload your required documents for the auditor to review.

  5. The audit checklist will be completed.

  6. Finally, any audit recommendations will be made.

How to Prepare for a Remote Audit

The most important key to success in a remote audit is planning. You can ensure a seamless experience by performing the following steps in advance.

  • Identify key personnel.
    Who will be present for the audit? Will they be onsite or connect via video?

  • Gather the documentation needed from the auditor.

  • Check your internet connection.
    Many facilities don’t have WiFi throughout the entire building. Your facility’s connection will need to support the audit in its entirety. If your connection is spotty, talk to your IT department to see what will need to be done in advance.

  • Work with the audit team to identify needs.
    Get clarity on the best methods for communication, such as sending emails, and which programs you’ll use for the audit itself. You may have a specific messaging platform or video conferencing system you prefer, for instance.

  • Gather documents ahead of time.
    The more digital documentation you can organize in advance, the smoother and easier the audit will be. This is one example of how having digital records can help your facility stay organized and ensure seamless processes.

Tips for Working with Remote Auditors

Keep in mind that the process is somewhat new and different for auditors, too. Anything you can do to make their jobs easier will be appreciated.

For instance, they’ll likely want to conduct interviews. The ability to talk to people on the floor is an important part of the audit process, so aim to facilitate this, if possible.

Many people are working from home, but try to be mindful that background noise can be disruptive and make it difficult to hear speakers. Aim for a quiet environment. Additionally, try to limit interruptions.

You’ll also want to perform a test drive before the actual audit. Ideally, both your team and your auditor should download the application you’ll use, make sure everyone can log in, and ensure all speakers can be heard and cameras are working.

Finally, do your best to stay calm. While audits can be stressful, preparing in advance should help to alleviate some of the concerns that come with the process.

Benefits of Remote Audits for the Food Industry

In the future, remote audits will likely become more commonplace. Although several COVID-19 vaccines have been rolled out, only a small portion of the population has been vaccinated. Many people will still be hesitant to travel for the foreseeable future, so performing audits remotely can help address health and safety concerns.

Here are some additional benefits of remote audits:

  • Savings on auditor and personnel costs

  • Flexibility and keeping pace with the remote working world

  • Ability to maintain current certifications

  • Faster preparation time

Using a platform like SafetyChain will ensure you are audit-ready at all times. Documentation and records are readily available on the platform and secured so only authorized parties have access to specified files. An electronic database is a far more convenient alternative to cumbersome binders, which take time to sort through.

Best Practices for Performing Remote Audits

In addition to undergoing remote audits, your company may also choose to perform remote audits for your suppliers. To start, perform a risk assessment and review their GFSI audit report. You might then create “mini audits,” or questionnaires based on what you learn from the risk assessment. Other factors to consider are whether there have been any changes since someone from your company has last been on site. During these mini audits, focus on critical programs related to FSMA. Based on the information collected and reviewed, give a Remote Assessment Score, which can be used to prioritize onsite audits as needed. And, always refer to the ingredient type and how it’s being used to help inform your audit decisions.

In Conclusion: Remote Audits Are Here to Stay

From a broader rollout of 5G to enhanced automation through IoT, accelerating technology will likely make remote audits even more prevalent moving forward. Tools like Google glass or Oculus by Facebook will likely become as ubiquitous as tablets on the floor, positioning Mixed & Augmented (M/AR) as ideal solutions for audits.

For now, however, the ability to perform and undergo remote audits is helping Food & Beverage companies maintain a commitment to safety and quality even in challenging circumstances. Companies that take advantage of remote audits and adapt to evolving technology now will be well-positioned to leverage further developments in the future.

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