What Constitutes a Successful FDA Audit?

By Sangita Viswanathan
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From the proposed third party accreditation rule, to GFSI audits, and needing more trained and experienced auditors, the process of auditing food facilities is undergoing a sea-change. What is the impact going to be on food companies, auditors, and the auditing process?

In a recent FSMA Fridays webinar, sponsored by SafetyChain Software, an expert team from The Acheson Group, comprised of Melanie Neumann, J.D., M.S., VP and Chief Financial Officer; Jennifer McEntire, Ph.D., VP and Chief Scientific Officer; Anne Sherod, M.S., Director of Food Safety and Valerie Scheidt, MBA, CP-FS, Director of Food Safety, answered key questions on conducting successful FDA audits. We present some excerpts below.  

How does the FSMA third party audit accreditation rule impact the audit process?

 

The purpose of the third party accreditation and certification audit is to issue a certificate for high risk foods or the voluntary qualified importer program. The main foundation of the standards that FDA is setting will come from the human preventative controls rule, the animal preventative controls rule, and the produce safety rule. Some standards may also come from the sanitary transportation rule and food defense rule. FDA will be appointing an accreditation body and this accreditation body will approve and monitor certifying bodies (CB). These CBs can be private companies or private individuals who will be authorized by the accreditation body to perform the audits and issue those certifications. 

 
Foreign governments can also be approved by FDA to act as a CB. Right now only New Zealand is approved and FDA is looking at approving Canada. We don’t anticipate any other country to be approved in the near future.;

Certifying bodies will have strict conflict of interest and reporting requirements to FDA. CBs must report to FDA within 45 days even if they’re just performing a consultative audit. They must also report to FDA if they see an issue that could lead to a Class I or Class II recall and they have to report to FDA before they report to the company that they are auditing.

 

Will a GFSI audit satisfy FSMA audit requirements?

GFSI audit requirements do not match the FSMA audit requirements, but they are not too different. Several of the schemes are very similar, and each scheme owner is making a concerted effort to become FSMA compliant. If an auditor is doing a GFSI audit, they do not need report to FDA before the company. The FSMA requirements of avoiding conflicts of interest, record keeping, and training may deter GFSI auditors from becoming Certifying bodies under FSMA. Unless FDA offers an incentive, there will be a shortage of FSMA CB auditors. 

 

What are the elements of a successful audit?

The number one goal of an audit is to identify risk. The audit needs to accurately describe the non-conformances against the audit standard to give your quality and operations team reliable and actionable data so they can mitigate that risk. The relationship between the auditor and the facility should be a partnership, add value, and build trust. The facility should learn from the auditor and the auditor should understand what the facility is doing to mitigate risk and promote food safety. Continuous improvement takes the feedback from the non-conformances and evaluates them against the organization’s goal around risk. Whether the results are from an announced, unannounced, internal, second, or third-party audit, continuous improvement is critical, and this requires commitment from management and will help the facility become audit ready. 

 

How can I ensure my auditor is up to the task?

Most audits use checklists. This goes for both the auditor and the audited. The checklist provides a standardized list of what’s expected and adds an element of order and control to the audit. It also allows for an effective way to quantify metrics. 

However, using a checklist alone can lead to minimum risk finding. The auditor needs to find a balance between being strategic and prescriptive. In order to be effective, audit protocols need to be periodically reviewed and updated. This is especially relevant with FSMA and holds true for internal and third-party audits. Check to see if the auditor’s checklist is pre-FSMA or post-FSMA. Ask the auditor when was the last time that they reviewed and updated their audit protocols. 

 

Will we have enough good auditors to meet the need?

No, we already don’t have enough good auditors. The implications of this are that we may get substandard audits from substandard auditors. The current model isn’t working and we need a new approach. Currently, most auditors have extensive prior experience working in industry and often become auditors after they retire.

We are creating auditors not through structured training. This model is not sustainable and has limited growth potential. It will not provide the level of training required for GFSI or FDA third party certification requirement. We need a training program for auditors who come right out of school. We need people to go to school for food safety and be able to become an auditor after graduation. Food safety needs to be incentivized at the university level. There should be a bachelors degree in food safety auditing. We need structured training and developmental opportunities for folks earlier in their career rather creating auditors at the end of their career.

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