Making The Grade

So, your facility just went through a food safety audit and passed with flying colors. It’s time to celebrate, right? Um, maybe not so fast. While inspections are the key to preventing a food recall disaster, it’s the quality of the audit that really counts.

Remember that massive salmonella outbreak that sickened more than 1,800 people? According to a Washington Post article, one of the companies involved in the recall, Wright County Egg, received a “superior” rating from its auditor, AIB International, just two months before the recall hit. (By the way, AIB is the same auditor that two years ago gave a “superior” score to Peanut Corp. of America, the company that sickened hundreds and killed nine with salmonella-contaminated peanuts… oops.)

Such foodborne illness outbreaks have focused national attention on the need for greater food safety oversight, whether it be by a government agency or through self-regulation. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has argued time and time again that it lacks the resources to inspect food facilities on a regular basis, so until that changes, the third-party audit is the industry’s best option to ensure food safety.

That being said, how can you make sure your safety audits are giving an accurate picture of your plant and product’s safety, rather than just providing a false sense of security? While the auditing process is never completely failsafe, there are steps you can take to make the most of your third party audits.

First of all, many manufacturers select their auditors based on price. Let’s face it, in a tough economy, companies are cutting spending any way they can. However, choosing an auditor based solely on price can end up costing your business more money in the long run. Less expensive auditors may not have the certifications or experience needed to properly inspect your facility, increasing the risk of a safety threat going unnoticed. Spending a little more on a certified, experienced auditor is a much better option than risking the life of your company by hiring a cheaper, less experienced auditor.

Most auditors are also paid directly by the company they are inspecting, which can also lead to unmentioned safety issues. Auditors can feel motivated to give high scores to the company they are auditing out of fear they may lose business if they give the facility low ratings. While companies cannot really avoid paying their auditors directly, they can help encourage auditors to be honest when it comes to scoring. Be sure to remind auditors that keeping your business requires accurate safety scores, not puffed up results. It is better that your facility and product truthfully be safe, not just appear to be safe.

Audits are often scheduled ahead of time, so plants can be sure to spruce up their operations to enhance their scores. While this does improve safety audit scores, it doesn’t provide an accurate reflection of the safety of the plants’ day-to-day operations. To remedy this, find an auditor that will perform random, unannounced safety evaluations. Not only will this give your facility a more accurate safety score, but random audits will encourage employees to be at the top of their game everyday, just in case.

A quality third-party food safety audit is one of the most important investments for food manufacturers. Next time you are shopping for a food safety auditor, keep these tips in mind to make sure you are getting the most accurate safety scores possible. Then, when you do get that “superior” rating, you will really have cause to celebrate.

How do you choose your third-party auditors? Let me know at