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Saturday, 3 September 2011

Two Kinds of Focus in Product Safety Management

The distance some are willing to go with passing school exams – Parents scale school walls in India to help students cheat:” This story closely reflects the "MUST PASS AUDITS" mentality that has permeated the food industry.
What does your company focus on when preparing for an external audit? 
From the examination of current approaches to product safety management and auditing, certain conclusions can be drawn: There is either a genuine or a fallacious relationship between established systems and the passing of audits. The kind of relationship at play in a given operation depends on the focus. Companies generally have two kinds of focus. The focus may be on protecting consumers (the right focus) or it may be on passing audits (the fallacious focus). In some instances the focus may be both. Even then, the fallacious focus remains as unproductive as if it were the only focus.

Many companies are able to establish product safety management systems that consistently attain passing grades when audited. At the same time, these companies may fail to consistently ensure product safety. The incongruity is typically due to the misconception that passing audits ensures product safety. This misconception drives the efforts of some companies when preparing for audits. It governs how and what systems, programs and procedures are implemented. Sadly, the misconception also governs how some audits are conducted. Where the focus is to protect consumers by consistently ensuring product safety, the implemented systems and programs are likely to consistently attain passing grades.

However, if the focus is on passing audits, the attained audit pass often becomes a problem. It provides a false sense of accomplishment because passing an audit does not necessarily ensure the consistency of maintaining product safety. Focusing on passing audits is like firing at shadows.

Both the focus on consumer protection and the focus on passing audits are achievable. However, only one is beneficial to the consumer. It is the focus on maintaining systems that will consistently ensure product safety. With this focus, the attainment of audit pass is almost inevitable.

The focus on passing audits also forces a focus on the standards against which the audits are conducted. Many of the existing standards have excellent coverage of essential product safety assurance measures and controls. However, some standards have superfluous (non product safety) elements. Companies that are failing to ensure product safety may be able to pay attention to such superfluous elements and pass the audits. Conversely, companies that pay little attention to these non product safety related elements may fail the audits. Even where a substantial amount of resources is invested in addressing the essential elements of product safety, companies can still fail audits if enough of the non product safety elements are not addressed.

Addressing these incongruities requires a careful attention given to the essential elements by all stakeholders (audit standard owners, auditing companies, auditors and audited parties). It is not all about "passing audits". Every company or food business needs to use the right metrics in the assessment of food safety and quality management success.

Posted by Felix Amiri
Felix Amiri is the Food Sector Chair of GCSE-Product& Health Protection

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