By Filippo Camerini and Nuno F. Soares, Ph.D.
We all know that auditing is far from perfect and some even question its efficacy in evaluating the adequacy of food safety systems. According to ISO 19011:2018, “Guidelines for auditing management systems,” an audit is a systematic, independent, and documented process for obtaining objective evidence and evaluating it objectively to determine the extent to which the audit criteria are fulfilled.
Faster or better?
It is clear by this definition that the auditor should focus on getting objective evidences of compliance against a standard. This is the issue: The time and effort auditors must devote to seeking evidence to include in the report largely surpasses the amount of time needed to question and understand why the organization has chosen to do things as they do.
Time is in fact a key issue. Because time is money, most organizations are eager to complete the audit and get back to work, either because they do not see the benefits of audits or because they are undergoing too many of them (done by different organizations but following similar approaches and adopting similar requirements). Additionally, the longer the audit, the higher its cost.
All the above lead to a situation where checklist evidence is gathered as fast as possible, and everyone goes back to “actual” work. But what is the actual gain in this situation? Is such a visit really effective?
Imagine you are a retailer interested in a product. A good price has been agreed upon but the only thing you know about the manufacturer is that it is certified. Is this enough to feel confident or do you wish for your consumers (and brand) to be further protected? In most cases, another (wide scope) checklist-based audit is planned. In fact, although an audit is essential for any certification process, an assessment would be a more effective tool to evaluate if and how a company achieves retailers’ key objectives.
What’s the difference?
Although not as wide ranging as the audit, an assessment provides a fresh look into things. Audits are intended to identify gaps against an established standard (for which compliance is the core purpose), and assessments are more about understanding and learning a process, such as the sustainability and adequacy of the food safety system to mitigate risks. Operations are analyzed in relation to the objectives instead of standard requirements. The system relies on the assessor’s experience, sensibility, and knowledge of the client’s areas of attention. He or she tries to understand WHY people have chosen to do things the way they do and evaluates their suitability in achieving desirable outcomes.
Further, some standard requirements might not be relevant in some specific cases: What about external areas if your product is delivered in closed boxes or piped into the lines? Once standards required the use of blue Band-Aids and blue pens in blueberry processing plants! Who never addressed “applicable but unsuitable” requirements during auditing?
In assessing food manufacturing facilities, a system approach must be used. This means analyzing how the manufacturer identifies, characterizes, and addresses hazards and risks. Auditors most commonly check if risk analysis is present and complete; assessors verify its adequacy to the threats and vulnerability of the product.
Reports have different approaches as well. In the audit report, cases of nonconformance are identified and classified in relation to a perfect score. Meanwhile, the assessment is focused on possible solutions and discussions about actions necessary to achieve key objectives; no score is present.
At the end of this article you can find a table presenting the main differences between audits and assessments.
Which is better? Both of them!
Audits and assessments are different tools. The audit is based on verifying how well organizations define how to fulfill the audit criteria and if activities are done as stated. The assessor has no requirements or criteria and must ask if the system of practices is effective or not. If an audit is essential for any certification process, an assessment is more effective to evaluate how a company achieves the key results. An assessment is not a proper tool for a certification. Third-party audits need to stay the way they are, as they check the compliance to a general standard shared among different operators (and auditors). In monitoring suppliers, integrating the assessment approach would mean being less generic and more focused on a process and product-specific approach.
The best option for buyers is selecting certified suppliers and then assessing them for the effectiveness of their practices. In fact, a certification standard, having to ensure uniform and fair evaluation of performances, is a prescriptive document stating how things should be done in all areas. The auditor judges and attributes the weight of possible deviations on the basis of a checklist. Factories and foods are not all the same and a deviation can be crucial or have negligible effects depending on how processes are organized. Being able to rely on the work of certification auditor colleagues, the assessor can devote all due time to explore areas he or she considers essential to the quality and safety of final products.
Sometimes the manufacturer’s quality assurance department must meet the standard, although some requirements find no place in its risk assessment logic. This does not happen in assessments because a more flexible attitude is displayed, but procedures and activities must actually be effective in terms of results (meaning high quality and safe food) rather than only being there to be seen.
|What is it?||Audits are intended to look for gaps against an established standard. Any issues found should be fixed, because|
the core purpose is compliance with an important standard.
|Assessments are about
understanding and learning. There is no such thing as a perfect score, unless you actually achieved
perfection. Assessments hold a
mirror up to a process or an
organization and give it useful
feedback and recommendations.
|Main reference tools||A standard is a prescriptive document stating HOW things SHOULD be done. A check list guides the auditor in the|
judgment and in attributing the weight of possible deviations.
|Operations are analyzed in
relation to desirable outcomes.
The system relies on the assessor experience, sensibility, and knowledge of the client’s areas of attention.
|Main actions||The auditor analyzes the situation and compares it to the standard requirements (check list).|
The focus is in the set of standard requirements used to verify if the processes are compliant.
|The assessors try to understand
WHY people have chosen to do
things the way they do and judge their suitability to achieve the desirable outcomes.
The focus is in the set of operations the company has adopted and how effective they are toward the result.
|Human resources||The auditor must describe the processes in relation to the standard.|
The audit tends to be as objective as possible.
|The assessor must evaluate the processes and determine
sufficiency and acceptability of the system in relation to the (expected) result.
The assessment relies on
experience and sensibility.
|Main outputs||Score -based result according to|
compliance with standard
No technical advice should be
|Non-score result, based on the
assessor’s professional judgment. Actions needed to make the assessed entity compliant to the objectives are discussed and recommendations for decision making might be present in the report.
About the authors
Filippo Camerini is a consultant in food-related manufacturing areas for institutions, service suppliers, and private companies. He has experience assessing and selecting suppliers of fortified food for emergency interventions and monitors suppliers for retailers and manufacturing companies in Europe, Saudi Arabia, and the United States.
Nuno F. Soares, Ph.D. is an author, consultant, and trainer in food safety. He is a food engineer specialist and senior member of the Portuguese Engineering Professional Association. He has more than 20 years of experience in the food industry as a quality and plant manager. You can reach him at www.nunofsoares.com.