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Friday, 27 September 2013

The Coming Shift - Product Safety and Quality Auditing

The thing with underground currents is that, like lava underground, they have the tendency to suddenly, sometimes painfully, catch the attention of people who ignored them.


Photo: On fire: Kawika Singson was shooting in the volcanoes of Hawaii, which was so hot his tripod and shoes caught alight, Courtesy of the Daily Mail: 15 July 2013 

An underground movement within the industry may suddenly catch the attention of people who have ignored it. This photo depicts some food safety assessment programs that focus on taking "spectacular" snap shots (snap shot audits) based on pre-set standards of expectations without noticing the actual realities at the audited sites (the underground “lava”: Attitudes, business tendencies, wasteful traditions, cost burdens, time constraints, unnecessary time wasters and more, are ever-poised to undermine the effectiveness of assuring the actual safety of the food produced.

The key issues addressed by Dr. Chris Elliot in his Interim Report show signs of the coming shift. One of the key suggestions includes: 

". . . a system where: industry, government and enforcement agencies always put the needs of consumers above all other considerations; this means giving food safety and crime prevention absolute priority over other objectives" 


This recommendation does not show the same details as the SSQA implementation guidelines but it should sound quite familiar, if you have become acquainted with the focus of the SSQA concept which is the actual protection (not the projected or anticipated protection) of consumers. This focus is clearly emphasized right from the title page of the implementation manual, through the outlined grassroots strategies that each food business should follow in organizing for success, to the outlined strategies for the broad collaboration of all stakeholders in SSQA implementation Step 4. 

The SSQA concept is both fundamentally and practically different from audit schemes. The successful implementation of the SSQA concept is assessed with direct consumer input. As far as I have seen in the audit schemes to which many operations have subscribed, consumers have very little part to play in the assessment of success with food safety and quality management systems (i.e. if at all consumers have any part).

Except where death or severe enchantment has occurred, a hard knock unfailingly awakens the sleeper.

Some predictions are true prophecy when there are no real signs to show any possibility of the predicted events. This prediction of an impending shift in the way audits are done is not a true prophecy in that sense. It only reports things that have already happened and are continuing to happen at increasing frequency.

The industry may be pleased with its food safety and quality management and assessment efforts. Many companies are continuing to be certified to prove due diligence. However, as stated in the blog post - "Aftermath of the Killer Cantaloupe Devastation" - some companies are feeling superficially invincible because they are yet to suffer a fate similar to the likes of: Jensen Farm; Peanut Corporation of AmericaSunland IncorporatedXL FoodsMaple Leaf Foods.” The feeling of invincibility will last for only as long as it takes the next devastating event to occur. 

Are you aware of these events and are you ready for the next big shift in product safety and quality assessment models? The flood will come. The signs are everywhere.

Here are some marks of the present state of affairs: 

  • The pride of product safety quality certification drives the system more than the derived reality of product safety and quality consistency. 
  • Many operators view product safety and quality management as a "project" that is terminable at the point of certification. 
  • Upon obtaining certification these managers sigh and say: "Phew, we are finally certified". Consequently, the need to perpetually maintain the established systems as part of the normal operation slips. 
  • A great number of managers promptly go into professional sleep after each audit "pass" until a few days or a few weeks prior to the next audit. 
  • With much boasting about food safety advances due to more “sophisticated” and “expanded” auditing and certification schemes, some businesses have been lulled into sleeping certifiedan extended and temporarily soothing certification sleep.
The typical trustworthiness of a certificate lasts for no more than one year. In many instances, the trustworthiness becomes questionable as soon as the audit ends and certificates are obsolete as soon as they are issued. Certifying bodies readily withdraw certificates upon the first instance of a publicized product failure that may or may not have caused harm to consumers. The pride of certification is immediately lost. Although re-certification may be issued by the certifying bodies once “corrective actions” are implemented. Regaining the pride of certification and the respect of the consuming public after such incidences take longer.

Due to the obvious short life span of product safety and quality system certificates and auditing schemes, future shifts are inevitable in the way audits will be conducted. Those who have been in the industry for long enough know that shifts in auditing schemes have always occurred. Evolving systems will foster a properly managed scope of audits with specific attention given to the unique realities within each operation. Present generic (one template for many facilities) approach to auditing will become obsolete. 

With the increased capacity for resource optimization that they bring, internal assessment programs will increasingly gain proper attention and respect. Some operations will be driven into strengthening their internal assessment programs after some 'hard-knock" experiences. They will be jolted from sleeping certified.


Real-life incidents suffered by customers who presently buy from suppliers with external audit certificates will force them to initially switch suppliers. However, as the number of new suppliers to which a buyer can switch diminishes, customers will increasingly be forced to conduct or resume their own audits with diminishing attention given to the external certificates that the suppliers have to show. Some major customers are already conducting their own audits at their suppliers’ facilities in spite of available certificates.

Consumers are becoming more sophisticated. They will increasingly demand to see more than the “Food Safety Certified” flags that are currently flying on supplier buildings. They will more closely scrutinize the products and services with their 100% sampling opportunities. Whether or not we agree with the suspicions, conclusions and demands, outcries similar to the recent objections to the use of ADA (azodicarbonamide) in bread will increasingly continue to be heard - http://www.cnn.com/2014/02/06/health/subway-bread-chemical/.

A Flag of Fame or Shame?
The third party certificate is already being rendered inconsequential in the social media era. One mistake by a company and its raised "product safety and quality certified" flag becomes an abomination. As messages and posts about bad experiences with the company's products flood the social media, people reading these posts will point to the "product safety and quality certified" flag and scoff. 




Posted By Felix Amiri
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Felix Amiri is the current Food Industry Chair of GCSE-Food & Health Protection

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