Ian Johnson has more than 40 years of experience in the agricultural, food, and fiber industry in various advisory, management, training, auditing, and consulting roles. In that time, he has become known as a passionate consultant, mentor, and auditor committed to best practices in food, environmental, and people safety concepts throughout Australia. Johnson is an advocate for the Agsafe, ChemCert, Freshcare, and Livestock Production Assurance (LPA) Australian agricultural industry stewardship programs designed to help businesses comply with the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA), SafeWork Australia and environmental agency legal requirements, and Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ). He also supports the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) and all HACCP-based food safety program goals in the supply of safe quality food and fiber for the domestic and export markets.
Johnson has been an Exemplar Global food safety management systems-certified auditor for the last 14 years. He is also qualified in Certificate IV Training and Assessment TAE40110 and is an Agsafe trainer, an Agsafe code of practice auditor, a ChemCert trainer, an experienced LPA auditor, a Freshcare (JAS-ANZ-accredited GFSI benchmarked program) auditor, and a Sci-Qual International (SQI) HACCP auditor. He is also trained in ISO 9001.
This level of skill and experience has resulted in his being contacted by clients and colleagues to help mentor them in the process required to enter (and succeed) in the highly enjoyable career of compliance auditing, consulting, and safety training in the agribusiness, agricultural, viticultural, livestock food, and fiber-production industries.
Prior to establishing his own business, IJ Ag Services, in 2004, Johnson’s experience included 27 years in agribusiness in various management roles, including business management, sales, marketing, product development, training, facilitation, consultancy, and auditing.
In this interview, we chat about various food safety schemes and standards, how auditors can improve their skills, and the value of seeing processes with fresh eyes.
EXEMPLAR GLOBAL: Tell us how you got started in this area of food safety.
IAN JOHNSON: My food safety journey commenced 44 years ago when I chose a career in the agricultural and agribusiness industries. For the last 30 years I have been passionately involved with the CropLife Australia Agsafe stewardship programs developed as a duty of care to ensure that those in the food supply industry—who sell, transport, deliver, and give advice—are appropriately trained. We also want to ensure that their businesses meet APVMA, SafeWork, and FOA requirements for storage, transport, and sale. In addition to this, for the last 15 years I have also been involved in the ChemCert Australia stewardship programs which basically work in stewardship partnership with Agsafe. ChemCert is the major agricultural and veterinary (agvet) chemical user training program to help ensure farmers and other chemical users are appropriately trained so as they do not cause harm to people, food, and the environment.
It was 17 years ago that I set up my business, IJ AgServices, initially with a focus on delivering the Agsafe and ChemCert industry stewardship training programs to our industry. These programs are key prerequisite supports for HACCP food safety and are referenced in the Australia and New Zealand Fresh Produce Safety Centre Guidelines for Fresh Produce Food Safety 2019.
In 2006 I was encouraged to become a Freshcare auditor, because quite a few ChemCert trainers are also auditors. I then went through the steps of becoming a Freshcare auditor with Sci-Qual International. With further training and development, I then progressed to doing HACCP audits on farms, which led to auditing warehouses. I also took a seven-day microbiological course to enable me to start auditing higher-risk crops such as alfalfa sprouts. I also got involved with auditing restaurants. In this way I progressed from the farm level all the way through to food production. Every experience is a learning experience, which I find fascinating.
Now, as I’m going on 67 years of age, I’m phasing out of training. At one time most of what I was doing was training, but now about 70 percent of it is auditing. Because of the experience I’ve gathered, I’m now getting requests from people to help as a consultant. I enjoy consulting and mentoring because you’ve got more freedom to give advice, where as an auditor, you are restricted to what advice you can give. There’s that conflict of interest between auditing to a standard and indirectly giving advice. You can’t just say to somebody, “Oh, you have to do it this way.” A consultant, on the other hand, needs to do that.
EG: Can you briefly share your thoughts on some of the various food safety standards and schemes and their overlapping and/or contrasting auditing protocols?
IJ: A lot of the programs follow similar principles, and they interact. Every Agsafe audit I do, I explain what Freshcare and HACCP is, and likewise, when I go and audit a restaurant, I explain that when you’re buying your food, you’re buying those fruit and veggies from an approved supplier who is Agsafe-accredited or HACCP-accredited. There are four million food safety poisonings in Australia per year. A lot of them are due to biological risks, because the chemical side of things is well-controlled. The poisonings are caused by bacteria like Listeria, Salmonella or E. coli. COVID-19, of course, is a bio-security risk, not related to food, but it certainly affects food production because when factories have to close down because a worker has got COVID-19, suddenly food is not getting processed. Our duty here is to share all that information to help assess risk.
In Australia, I’m one of the younger people in the field, actually. There are some young people coming along, and one of my roles is in mentoring them. But we certainly need more people becoming auditors. Whenever I meet field advisors, agronomists, or other professionals, I’ll say, “You’ve got the skill to become an auditor.” I’ll show them how they can develop the skills for doing internal audits and then progress through training to actually be an approved Exemplar Global-certified third-party auditor. It’s a great career for those people who might like to work for themselves, which a lot of us in auditing or training. I was 49 when I decided I had had enough of working for companies and wanted to work for myself. It’s exciting and I want to encourage people to do it as well. Auditing gives you an income source that’s quite consistent and enables you to do complementary and synergistic activities. Sci-Qual International, who I work for, has been around for a long time. They’re a smaller Australian Certification Body company, but all their auditors work for other certification bodies, which is great, because this increases the talent pool and level of experience and knowledge of the group. We’ve got people that also work for SAI Global, SGS, AUS-QUAL, AUS-MEAT, and others.
EG: How would you say that training has benefited you during your career?
IJ: It’s benefited me in the sense that it’s a continual learning process. My Exemplar Global auditor training log starts back in 2006, and I’ve averaged more than 80 hours of professional development activities, including skills improvement training, a year. A lot of the training is mandatory. To be an auditor with a certification body in Australia, for example, we must be certified. To be a trainer for a registered training organization, we must have a certification in workplace assessment and training. To be a contract trainer for a registered training organization, you have to keep those skill levels up. That means about every two years or so you will have to complete a training course in a specific certification to keep your qualifications to be a trainer and assessor.
There’s more and more short online training happening now, which is good. Agsafe has got excellent training modules around spill response and safety, for example, and they only take about 40 minutes. Quite a few of them are provided free and include videos. No doubt, training is essential to honing our skills. I must do it as a trainer for ChemCert and Agsafe. For auditing, we do it every year. We have an annual food auditor’s conference for all the auditors for Sci-Qual International, where we go through training. Program managers from Freshcare, SQF, and others come in and do presentations for us. We have a requirement to update our Freshcare auditor qualification every three years, including a hazard refresher course. SAI Global, fortunately, have developed a HACCP refresher online course, which only takes about two hours. The full HACCP course is 30 or 40 hours online, which is pretty time-consuming. In any event there’s no doubt that training is important, and people don’t mind training providing it’s appropriate and enjoyable.
EG: So as someone who has been in this field for a few years, you still continue to build your knowledge base.
IJ: That’s right. I’m entering into the mentoring phase of my career, and a lot of the mentoring work I basically do as a service to industry. On my LinkedIn, I say that I’m a passionate advocate for these programs, so I’ll get people who contact me and ask, “How do you get into this career?” Or they might listen to my story at a training course and say, “I’d like to do what you do.” They are at that stage in their career where they aren’t happy working with a company, or they’ve been there for many, many years and aren’t getting anywhere. They just see the excitement of contracting, freelancing, being your own boss. However, a lot of people are a little bit hesitant to invest in the necessary training to pursue this type of career. It took me nearly two years to become an auditor because I was juggling other work. If you can do straightaway, it’s quicker.
I know people who have been trainers for many years, and suddenly the training market has shrunk, or the competition has gotten more intense, and they will say, “Oh, I’m not getting students for my courses.” My question to them is, “Well, you may be too reliant on one source… have you ever considered auditing?” Then we’ll talk about the steps that are involved, and they’ll say, “Oh, that’s a lot of hard work.” Well, it is hard work, but once you get into it, you can do what I’m doing well into your 70s. That’s the thing about auditing. Training, as we get a little bit more senior, can be physically exhausting. Whereas auditing, it’s a one-on-one experience, and it’s every year. That’s what I enjoy about it.
Quality assurance auditing is at least partly about demonstrating the benefits of being part of the process because companies do not have to get audited to be in business. They may need to be registered to a certain scheme or standard because their customer wants it. But the government doesn’t say that people have to be HACCP-certified. All Australian companies in the food industry must comply with the Food Safety Act. What I say to auditees is that food safety systems such as HACCP and others help you comply with the Food Safety Act. As an auditor, I try to get the client to hopefully see benefit in the audit process. And normally they do because the Sci-Qual HACCP standard audit is also based on certain aspects of ISO quality management and SQF standards as well. It’s not just the basic 12 steps of HACCP, it’s focused on the structure of the overall business and continual improvement. This is the way to simplify things, which is where the improvement is. We should focus on the outcome and not get too pedantic. Some people who are straight out of university tend to be critical because they focus on the pedantic elements of something.
That’s what I like about risk-based thinking. For example, if the pencils being used are not really blue, but the element states that they should be blue, is that really going to affect food safety and quality? I’ve been trained by Sci-Qual, AUS-MEAT, Freshcare, Agsafe and ChemCert and the importance of the risk-based thinking and compliance to legal requirements, but if something is written in a standard as best practice and is not a legal requirement, there can be the ability to adopt risk-based thinking. If an element says something must be done, if you could make a note in the audit report, an appropriate reason why it doesn’t apply, then that can be fine. Providing it is not a legal requirement. What I find is if lots of corrective actions are raised regarding issues for which the client just cannot see the logic, then you’ve lost it. Whereas if you can explain to somebody why a particular element makes something prescriptive, they understand. It’s like a fruit and veggie grower I audited the other day. They have their water from the river that goes through a water purification system to get rid of bacteria for them to wash their hands and wash their produce. Now the Freshcare standard requires that there need to be some sort of verification, that the system designed to get rid of chemicals and bacteria is effective. And they said, “Oh, how come I’ve got to do that?” Then I explain it and they say, “Oh, that’s fair enough, I understand,” and they just arrange the test. Another form of sanitization is using ultraviolet light, so there are ultraviolet light systems. Well, under auditing programs, that’s good, but you’re still going to have a verification system to check that that system’s working. I find it important to explain principles to people and what validation and verification means. Once they get it, they understand.
EG: I want to go back to something you said, about the idea that a person can audit deep into their career. As an experienced auditor, are you able to walk into an auditing situation with fresh eyes? In other words, how do you not assume, because you’ve seen a certain situation many times before, that you immediately know what’s going on at the organization? How do you approach their processes with what is known as “beginner’s mind”?
IJ: That’s why the GFSI standards, and Freshcare requirements, demand audit rotation. Every time we do an audit, if we’re following another auditor, we review their audit reports, and I learn from reading those reports from the other auditors what things I should focus on. The other thing I do is, when I do a food safety audit, is to review the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries Food Authority inspection reports. These are government-appointed auditors who inspect certain high-risk businesses every year. I look at their reports and I think, “Oh, that’s interesting, this is what the government inspectors are focusing on.” You can always learn, because as you say, assuming we know everything is the wrong way to approach auditing. I can audit restaurants even though I don’t know how to make food. My job is to assess risk, and to do that all I have to do is show interest in what the person is doing and ask questions: How do they normally do this process? How do they normally prepare food?
Another way we learn is through witness audits. Freshcare is a JAS-ANZ-accredited program, and I had a session with the JAS-ANZ assessor who sat in on the audit I did. It was helpful, and he raised a couple of issues. I used to be an auditor to Woolworths, and you must have a witness audit process at that organization. If something goes wrong with Woolworths or Coles, there’s accountability. Woolworths and Coles can cancel a contract with a particular certification body, whether it be SGS, SAI Global, AUS-QUAL, whatever. Sometimes it’s not always done fairly, sometimes it’s done because the QA manager doesn’t like a particular personality style. And that’s why I think this workstyle assessment that Exemplar Global offers is excellent. I have to say I quite like my result… there’s no right answers but it sort of explained pretty well that I should be doing what I’m doing in my career. I’m action-orientated and have empathy. That’s what a good auditor needs.