Starting in late March, based on travel restrictions and the risk of COVID-19 infection transmission, GFSI released direction to the food industry on the possibility of recertification extensions. The extensions enabled a one-time, six-month grace period to prevent certification loss.
In June GFSI updated guidance to allow up to half of the recertification process to be completed off-site using remote technology, while requiring completion of an audit’s on-site inspection within 28 to 30 days. In exceptional circumstances, a certification program could allow a maximum of 90 days for the on-site audit portion. As these “blended” audits began, fewer facilities sought extensions.
The remote portion of an audit, which includes program and record review as well as interviews, may increase audit time compared to pre-COVID audits, as all involved adjust to the use of technology and accessible electronic formats for records and programs.
After COVID-19, it is conceivable to predict that a portion of the audit could remain virtual. However, in food production, auditing requires the use of sight, touch and smell, not yet replicated without human observation. And, while COVID-19 has forced an audit evolution by pushing “virtual” adoption based on business needs, remote capabilities will still require a significant investment in technology, time and re-education of the industry. In the meantime, expect audit schedules to be disrupted for the next 9 to 12 months.
As the industry seeks to adapt for the future, we will likely see an acceleration in terms of digitized quality management systems. In the short term, manufacturers are putting their energy and focus into keeping employees safe, maintaining production and meeting customer commitments.
Several leading food safety groups have issued guidance on best practices for blended audits and the use of technology. And while the answer to “Are blended audits are here to stay?” appears to be “yes” for the immediate future, audits are expected to evolve over time. Although certain sections within audits are better adapted to remote capabilities, facilities will continue to use on-site auditors until new technologies enable them to do otherwise.