Audits play an integral role in verifying proper food safety practices at food and beverage processing facilities. Food audits determine if food is manufactured in a safe environment and if hazards are properly identified, controlled or eliminated.
But who are the professionals who actually perform these audits? These professionals are food auditors and there is an increasing demand for food auditors.
Food auditors audit food manufacturing plants
A food auditor is a professional who performs food safety audits on client organizations to ensure food safety standards are upheld. They verify and document evidence of compliance and non-compliance and write comprehensive reports on audit findings. When corrective actions are identified, they communicate with quality control and assist in the management of addressing any appeals. Finally, they educate and train client employees on food safety practices.
In addition to evaluating food safety itself, food auditors will audit a manufacturing plant and ensure that they have proper systems in place for evaluating the facility, identifying issues and taking corrective actions. They want to make sure that even if an audit is not being performed, the company is able to take corrective actions on their own.
For example, an auditor may find that there are no temperature controls in a transportation vehicle. auditor will look to the quality department and ask why have they not created a system to identify the error.
Food auditors travel a lot
Some food auditors can expect to travel 80% or more of their time. They perform frequent and overnight travel, with some of these trips taking them around the country and the world. Audits can last days at a time, so auditors need to be comfortable being away from home for a few days at a time. Although minor, these professionals are usually responsible for finding their own accommodations (this is covered by the company).
Food auditors have industry experience
Food auditing is not a career that a new graduate can jump into right out of the gate. All food auditors must start with hands-on training in a quality-related role like quality control or quality assurance for at least 3-5 years.
In addition to work experience, food auditors generally have university degrees in science. Examples include food science, chemistry, biology and microbiology. These degrees provide a solid foundation for when students enter the industry. A degree in the sciences allows food auditors to first begin their careers in quality departments at manufacturing plants.
In some rare cases, food auditors may only have a high school diploma, but extensive work experience in quality control and assurance allows them to overcome this hurdle. However, this is becoming less common, as the need for education is pushing the demand forward.
The best food auditors are those who have been mentored or trained by other food auditors. Auditors trained by a mentor have a better grasp of audit planning, interviewing techniques, document review and evaluating corrective actions focused on risk. Doing so sets that person apart contributes to a good reputation and secures a long-term career.
Food auditors are record keepers
If you are not familiar with the auditing process, you should know that a lot of time is spent going through records.
According to Nancy Scharlach, 60% of an auditor’s time goes to reviewing Standard Operating Procedures(SOPs) and day-to-day records. For example, a day-to-day record could be a standard document for the testing of pH on a milk product. An auditor will read through the document and ensure that every single test is signed off and that any test which has a non-compliance has an additional comment talking about the corrective action.
When going through records, auditors are looking to see if there are any general negative trends. If one is observed, they will seek corrective action and ensure that a new system is put in place to avoid this.
Food auditors use a four-step process
During food audits, auditors follow a simple method. The steps that they follow are:
- Observe – This step is the basis of everything. Auditors need to have a strong attention for detail and the ability to see things that others do not. They must pay attention to the premise and observe that it is being properly maintained and cleaned. Auditors observe people to ensure they perform their jobs correctly and safely.
- Question – Auditors need to be able to ask the right questions to ensure open communication. These questions can be open or close-ended and depend on what the auditor wants to know. They ask open-ended questions when they seek more information about a non-compliance to identify the root cause. Closed questions are used when auditors determine compliance without explanation or qualification.
- Listen – When an auditor asks a question, they listen to the response of the communicator. They are receptive, make encouraging sounds and always check for understanding. When you talk to an auditor, you always know they are listening.
- Record – Auditors are exposed to a substantial amount of information during audits. That is why they need to take clear, concise notes. They record any non-conformances with explicit details so they can follow up later.
Food auditors have certifications
There are many different certifications that an auditor is required to possess. These certifications are based on the company they are auditing, the company the auditor works for and the country they are auditing within. The most common certifications are SQF, HACCP and ISO.
Safe Quality Food (SQF) is a safety program that is recognized by food service and retailers to ensure credible food safety management. SQF differs from other food safety programs because it is the only program recognized by the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI).
Auditors must be registered by the SQF Institute to carry out audits on behalf of a SQF licensed certification body. In order to obtain this certification, potential SQF candidates must complete a HACCP training course and the SQF systems course. There are so many more requirements for these types of auditors, but it is difficult to cover them all in this book. If you are interested in learning more, please refer to the SQF Institute’s official document on “Criteria for SQF, Food Safety Auditors, Quality Auditors and Technical Reviewers.”
HACCP Auditors, on the other hand, are auditors who have a thorough understanding of HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) standards and principles. The FDA and the USDA even require mandatory HACCP programs for juice and meat processing facilities. Not only is this program relevant to food, but it is also used in other industries like government, manufacturing, service and pharmaceutical.
To be eligible to become a certified HACCP Auditor, workers must have at least five years of on-the-job training in one or more areas of ASQ Body of Knowledge. However, if you do have a formal education, this can waive some part of the five-year experience.
Recertification is also required every three years. More information about the requirements and certification process can be found on the American Society for Quality website.
Food auditors have integrity
Even though an auditor may be highly regarded, there will be times that they get pushback. Even highly documented, fully supported audit reports will generate disagreement. Individuals can become angry and even deny their actions when they receive the results of the audit.
Food auditors need to have a strong sense of integrity and know what they are doing is essential for safety. This strong integrity comes in the form of resilience so that they can work with people in a constructive manner.
Auditors push through people’s resistance and put safety above all.
Food auditors communicate well, are objective and think critically
Being a food auditor requires a wide range of skills. However, there are a few which are more essential than others. These skills include:
- Communication – Auditors communicate effectively with clients and companies to ensure that problems and solutions are understood. If food facilities don’t understand the problem then corrective actions cannot be met.
- Critical/Systematic Thinking – These professionals think clearly and are sensible both in their structure and purpose. When they see a problem, they systematically think about the reasoning and make conclusions.
- Objective – Food auditors are independent and objective. They have a strong constitution, know what is right and are unduly influenced by operating management. Finally, they put food safety above all because consumer health is their top priority. During audits, auditors understand that when they point out non-conformances, this isn’t meant to hurt someone’s feelings but simply to ensure food safety. Nobody wants to experience a food recall.