Ajay Shah, Ph.D., is a highly respected and deeply experienced food scientist/technologist trained in the United Kingdom. He has impressive academic achievements and career highlights. Dr. Shah has lectured in the field of food science and technology to university students in Australia, the UK, and New Zealand, and has also shared his expertise by presenting technical seminars, conferences, and webinars.
He has been operating his food technical consultancy business for the past 21 years by providing scientific and technical solutions to the food industry. Dr. Shah was named as a Fellow of the Australian Institute of Food Science and Technology (AIFST) in recognition of his outstanding service to the food industry in 2018.
In this interview, we chat about his extensive academic and professional career, the lessons to be gained from both realms, and his method of nurturing and mentoring young auditors.
EXEMPLAR GLOBAL: Please tell us a bit about your background and how you got involved in food safety and auditing.
AJAY SHAH: I was born in Kenya and then raised in Uganda, but we had to leave there in 1972 because of the tyrant, Idi Amin. My family and I then came to United Kingdom as refugees because my parents had British passports. All my schooling was done in the UK, from high school to university—my higher national diploma in applied biology, my bachelor’s degree with honors in biology and chemistry, my master’s degree in food science, and my Ph.D. in food technology. I then went to Montpellier University in France before taking a job in Holland for BP Nutrition. Shortly thereafter, I won a Silver Jubilee Travel Prize from the Institute of Food Science and Technology in the UK while studying for my Ph.D. I had to use that money up, so I traveled to the United States and ended up at Texas A&M to do a small project. Afterward, I took up a lectureship upon my return to the UK at the University of Wales in Cardiff. I was there from 1992 to 1997, minus a sabbatical year at Massey University in New Zealand as a Senior Visiting Research Fellow. There I worked with a very good team of people, like Professor Osvaldo Campanella, who is now based at Ohio State University.
A position became available in Perth, Australia as coordinator of the food studies program, where I changed the whole dynamics of the syllabus to shift from food studies to food science. To me, “food studies” didn’t mean anything. Food science graduates can get jobs because that’s what industry wants, rather than food studies. The whole course was redesigned around food science, but unfortunately university politics kicked in and they closed the department.
I then made my way to the state of Victoria, and I became R&D manager for Lowan Whole Foods, which is a breakfast cereal company. Again, corporate politics kicked in, because the man who hired me was fired and since I was recruited by him, I was let go as well. It was Christmas time and I had only been in the state of Victoria for six months, so I didn’t have many contacts. It was a tough time. My wife was expecting our first child. They say that Australia is a lucky country, but I found it to be very unlucky at that point! One makes their own luck, though, so I started my business consultancy in 2000.
Soon I had several clients, and in 2003, I was approached by a U.S. company called RQA. To back up a bit, my first taste of auditing was back in 1998 when I was asked to become a technical expert with the certification body SGS. In 2003, I was approached by RQA to conduct second-party audits for an insurance company, and I have conducted many food safety audits ever since.
Now I audit for DQS, QMS Certification Services, and Intertek. I’ve become a lead cosmetics auditor for both DQS and Intertek, and I’m one of the busiest cosmetics auditors in Australia.
EG: With your deep experience in academia as well as industry, how would you characterize the lessons of auditing that you’ve gained from both worlds?
AS: All knowledge gained from academia can be put into practice in the real world. I found that I learned a lot more by seeing the programs first-hand and applying the knowledge that I gained from academia into practice. When one is new to the auditing arena it is quite beneficial to partner with an experienced auditor who has had a lot more knowledge about dealing with various issues, so I used to try and take every opportunity to learn from other auditors during the audit to see what they were looking at. In that way, you pick up different things from different auditors and then you take the pluses from everybody and apply them to your style.
Every auditor is unique, so it’s also good to network whenever there is an auditor get-together, which I always tend to go to. In this way you can participate in case studies with real-life examples. I’ve done this to increase my knowledge; ever since, I’ve passed this technique onto young and upcoming auditors by mentoring them within industry, especially as internal auditors. Some of these people have become very good internal auditors and QA managers for various companies here in Australia. It gives me a great feeling when I see young people that I’ve nurtured come a long way in their careers. I want to leave a legacy for others to follow.
EG: That’s a unique and important skill, because many people are expert at what they do, but they’re not as good at teaching, training, and communicating. But given that this is a particular strong suit of yours, what would you say you learn yourself in the process of teaching others?
AS: I think you learn a lot from others. Even newcomers on the scene can have a different skill set. I’m old-school, and sometimes I’ll learn new tricks from them with the computer. It’s a two-way process, and you must reciprocate in this business. They learn all the tough skills of what to look for when you’re auditing, and they will also guide you with the technology, because these days everything is done through computers and other devices. When I first started my auditing journey, it was all hand-written notes and things, and now you put everything straight into the computer through a template. Things have changed and I can see things will continue to progress. The new auditors coming on board now are more technologically advanced, so they will be a lot quicker than us old-school boys. But, saying that, we still keep up with the technology. I think for the time I’ve been in academia and also in that industry, I have been pretty well-versed in terms of computer knowledge to meet my needs.
I’ve learned a lot, especially with remote auditing. That was a big learning curve for everybody, and some older people were a little bit worried how they could conduct audits during Covid-19. Sometimes, I think, you just have to dive in. I have been in the deep end many times in my life. When I was a young pupil in high school in the UK, I found it very tough as the only Indian boy in my classes. If you can just take it all in, you can master anything. That’s my tip for new auditors—just take it all in and go with the flow.
EG: Becoming a life-long learner is good advice not only for new auditors, but for old auditors, too! Everyone should commit to learning and changing and evolving. For instance, you mentioned remote auditing. Do you think that it’s here to stay post-Covid-19, and also, how can we improve remote auditing processes?
AS: Remote auditing is a trend that is gaining traction rapidly and maximizing this type of auditing can only be a positive thing. From my experiences, I think it’s very handy for desktop review, but in terms of actually seeing the things on the floor. I would say no, because you can miss a lot of things unless you’re there in person. There are pluses and minuses in remote auditing. The pluses are that you can look at documents in detail because when you’re on site you have limited time. With remote auditing you can tell the auditee to put these documents in Dropbox or email them to you in a zip file. You can then look at the documents and make thorough comments on them. That has helped me and also the client pick apart a few issues which you normally wouldn’t be able to do because often you’re under a lot of pressure to try and finish the audit.
Clear and well-planned audits and good communications are essential to ensure that the process runs smoothly. We are moving to a more virtual auditing approach. Remote audits will not take over the entire audit activity. Probably half of the scope will be covered remotely depending on the auditor and the risks involved. If the audited organization is in a high-risk environment, then obviously you will need to be on site a lot more than doing everything remotely because you will miss important details. Sometimes when you ask people to hold the camera, they’ll probably want to show you what they want to show you, and not want to show the things that you really want to see. They might avoid the problematic areas. It’s somewhat hit-and-miss.
Covid-19 has sort of open our eyes a bit. Remote auditing will continue to be a useful tool to conduct desktop audits or document review. Remote video auditing will only be successful if the technological infrastructure and know-how is in place. Sometimes what happens, I think, is you go to a place and you lose vision or you don’t get the signal because it’s full of corrugated iron, so the technology needs to be universally available, and we’re just not quite there yet.
The other thing I wanted to also point out is that with security breaches becoming more common in the world of remote working, sensitive operational and employee data may be most vulnerable to hackers. This is very important, especially when you’re doing corporate social responsibility audits. I’m actually learning about that right now. Data is a very sensitive issue when you’re doing ethical audits, so that is something that people will really need to home in on and use the right platforms. Some of the companies, like insurance companies, will not use Zoom. They prefer to use Microsoft Teams purely for that reason.
EG: That’s an excellent point. It’s often overlooked that every advancement creates vulnerabilities. We need to be aware of them and take steps to obviate them as you’re doing the audit.
AS: Yes, that’s absolutely right.
I’m also now getting involved with another set of audits, which is FAMI-QS. I’m a lead auditor for that as well. I’m just getting involved with doing remote audits with FAMI-QS on-site audits.
EG: We talked about this a little bit already, but given your experience working with new people coming into the field, what is the advice that you usually offer?
AS: The most important thing I always try to teach young auditors is how to a plan the audit. I also teach them what to look for in management review meetings—what should be on the agenda, etc. I have them come with me to the facility, and I show them what an audit plan and a checklist look like. I walk through the facility with them because you can’t just leave them on their own. I learned things the hard way because I didn’t have anybody as a guide, and I didn’t have a mentor as such. I was learning from auditors who came to audit the systems, and I just sort of tagged along and saw how they conducted their audits. I learned from that experience.
With newcomers today, I try to nurture them. I show them what they should be looking at and looking under. We try to get behind everything and see if they are any droppings, for example, to check about pest control. We look at the pest control bait boxes to see if they are anchored properly. We look to see if there are any cobwebs, which tells us whether the pest control technician has looked at the bait boxes properly. And of course, when you do your walks through the actual processing area, you look at all the GMP issues. Those are just a few examples of the level of detail that newcomers need to understand.
Then I also show them how to write reports, what needs to be on the report, and document all the objective evidence. The auditor needs to gather all that and then note all the document reviews with the issue numbers. Everything must be documented because if you find anything that’s not right, you can refer to the documents and then raise the issue as a nonconformance.
I think young auditors can learn a lot very quickly. Before you know it, they grasp it. I’ve known two auditors who have become great auditors in big companies, who are actually leading the QA teams. These are people that I nurtured early in their careers. That’s what I like to do, bring young people along with me.