With restrictions applied in a large number of countries, the Food Safety and Quality Assurance (FSQA) experts face a very important challenge: how to assess suppliers and facilities now that they cannot travel to conduct audits? Until today the onsite audits were the most important supplier verification activity.
Travel bans affecting the supply chain in several ways is today the main concern of the experts according to recent research.
In light of the developing global situation, the application which is foreseen to be developed in EU Horizon project „The Food Safety Market” aspires to put an end in this bottleneck and will establish the remote auditing in Europe as its major goals are to:
- enable all actors in the food chain to monitor, trace and predict food safety risks in the food supply chain;
- allow Food safety Inspectors and Auditors to manage inspection/certification workflow digitally; and
- allow farmers and food producers to manage their resources and their certifications data.
However as the final version of TheFSM application will be tested, completed and released in Q1 2023, the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) announced that it is exploring together with the Certification Program Owners the conduction of remote and virtual audits.
But how can a virtual and remote audit be conducted? How can information and communication technology help? What kind of information and data do someone needs beforehand to be well prepared for such a remote audit? How can somebody assesses risk using all the food safety records and global insights? Let’s first see what was the response to this situation of the Certification Program Owners and Authorities.
RESPONSE BY CERTIFICATION PROGRAMME OWNERS AND NATIONAL AUTHORITIES
Organizations that own the most important food safety standards like the BRC have already published revised guidance that allows remote audits. According to the guidance, remote audits shall include live video check of the manufacturing process, fabrication and hygiene of the site. This shall include a discussion with relevant personnel from the site. In addition to that, the remote audit should include a traceability challenge, the challenge of key procedures and challenges of specific aspects of concern identified through a review of the self-assessment. The use of remote technology shall ensure that adequate controls are in place to avoid abuses that could compromise the integrity of the audit process.
International Featured Standards (IFS) announced that since during coronavirus times the onsite audits are not possible, a remote surveillance check can be applied. The check is only applicable to IFS certified companies and can only be conducted by the certification body that issued the last certificate.
European Commission announced the implementation of the regulation (EU) 2020/466 of 30 March 2020 on temporary measures to contain risks to human, animal and plant health and animal welfare during certain serious disruptions of Member States’ control systems due to coronavirus disease. The temporary measures foresee the submission of the certification and attestation in electronic format through the TRACE system.
The FDA issued a temporary policy for the onsite audits of food facilities during the coronavirus (COVID-19). The policy was issued to minimize disruptions in the supply chain now that the demand for some food products is high. The policy is temporarily not enforcing onsite audits. Without having the onsite audits as the main tool, companies need to be based on the Food Safety Plans and other verification activities like sampling, testing or review of food safety records. As mentioned in the policy:
“Alternative methods need to be defined to provide sufficient assurance that hazards have been significantly minimized or prevented during the period of onsite audit delay.”
It’s now maybe more important than ever before, to know all the potential hazards and to monitor them continuously remotely. What kind of information and data do I need to identify the hazards? Which are the steps for the risk assessment that will complement a remote audit and will ensure that hazards will be significantly minimized?
HOW SUPPLIERS RISK CAN BE ASSESSED REMOTELY USING GLOBAL FOOD SAFETY INSIGHTS
A systematic risk assessment supported by all the global insights can ensure the highest effectiveness of a remote audit. Such a remote risk assessment can include the following steps.
Step 1: Create a list with all the ingredients and raw materials that the supplier is using.
Step 2: Use reports published by food safety authorities (FDA, EFSA, Food Standards Australian) and bibliographic databases (PubMed, AGRIS) to identify known biological, physical, chemical hazards and fraud for all these ingredients. Focus on the risk of each region to identify risks for sourcing countries like the increased chemical contamination in fruits and vegetables. You can document the main hazards per ingredient in a spreadsheet.
Step 3: Use search engines (Google, Bing, Yandex, Baidu) and National Authorities’ databases like the FDA Import Alerts and FDA Import Refusals, FDA Inspections, to check if the supplier was previously involved in a recall or border rejection. Study if the reported incidents were for chemical, biological, physical and fraud issues. Document the results in the spreadsheet that you have created in step 2.
Step 4: After collecting all this information, analyse all the hazards and rank the risk using an approach that takes into account the severity of the hazard and the frequency of the incidents. Several tools for risk analysis and corresponding bibliography can be found using metadatabases like the https://www.foodrisk.org/ and some of them are available at the website of international organizations like the Food and Agriculture Organization of United Nations (http://www.fao.org/food-safety/resources/tools/details/en/c/1191489/).
Step 5: Having all the information about potential risks, ask for an updated Food Safety Plan from the supplier for all the ingredients used in the products that you are buying. Also, ask for full traceability records of all the ingredients used in the products that you are buying and focus on the origin of the ingredients and raw materials.
Step 6: Cross-check the food safety plan with the hazards that you have documented and analysed in the spreadsheet. Identify gaps in terms of hazards and fraud issues and missing corrective actions. Ask for a response on these points plus the mitigation plans for all the recalls, border rejections and inspections with negative outcomes that you have identified.
Step 7: Arrange a virtual call with the FSQA team of the supplier to discuss details about the hazards and the mitigation steps.
Collecting all the required information, organizing it in a spreadsheet, analysing all the hazards, estimating the risk and creating the report from the findings is a time-consuming and error-prone process. With all the new challenges that an FSQA expert is currently facing due to coronavirus (COVID-19), spending extra time is not possible.
Such a process will be highly facilitated by using an SME-powered industrial data platform which will boost the competitiveness of European food certification. It will build upon state-of-art blockchain technologies to create an open and collaborative virtual environment that facilitates the exchange and connection of data between different food safety actors interested in sharing information that is critical to certification.