One of the enduring mistakes in the food industry is the setting up of so-called food safety and quality management or auditing "standards" under various names against which to assess the performance or compliance of companies. These so-called standards, more appropriately described as schemes, are growing increasingly complex because of knee-jerk reactions to events occurring in the industry. With so many schemes blindly forced upon the industry by the industry, the target at which to aim was already constantly moving. Now it is moving ever so rapidly. The problem is continuing to expand with knee-jerk reaction rules that are more confusing than helpful to operators. Many of the prefabricated solutions proposed by "expert committees" have the same predictable success rate as the enterprise of fitting shapes according to colour.
The industry urgently needs to make significant changes to the current food safety and quality system auditing arrangements. The disconnect and mounting complexity of food safety and quality assurance rules and proposed solutions can be attributed to the fact that the so-called expert committees making the rules or suggesting misfit solutions do not have direct accountability for the implementation success. Scheme owners appear to simply wish to out-do each other in an almost juvenile "mine is better than yours" competition. All the while, each scheme owner's goal is market expansion for greater profit instead of greater effectiveness in the assurance of safe food.
The complexity of rules will continue to be untamed for as long as the rule makers are not duty-bound to show measurable results that demonstrate success in achieving the primary purpose of the rules.
Complex and almost impossible rules are easily and readily imposed by individuals who do not bear any burden (effort, time, cost, and other consequences) for keeping them. With little to no room allowed for innovative thinking, some of the rules actually stifle the creativity of system managers who could otherwise solve many food safety challenges more efficiently and effectively.
Voluntary Yet Mandatory Subscription:
Although a company or its customers may choose the scheme to follow, subscribing to a scheme has become a mandatory requirement for doing business at some levels. The schemes are also beginning to include clauses that force a wider subscription. For example, some schemes have included requirements for a subscriber to accept scheme certificates from its suppliers as evidence of satisfying certain aspects of the required programs. These suppliers are essentially forced to subscribe to the same schemes or run the risk of losing business. The forced subscription further drives the superficial (cat and mouse game) compliance tendencies among reluctant operations that simply want to obtain certificates in order to gain more business. With many untested assumptions about the successful implementation of the schemes, some operations quickly become entrenched and somewhat enslaved to initially selected schemes. The schemes tend to stress the need for subscribers to match their exact formats in setting up their systems otherwise they cannot expect to do well in audits conducted against the schemes. Thus, due to the time constraint and the cost of switching from one exact format to another, subscribers are systematically discouraged from switching schemes. The subscribers are essentially forced to stay with the initially selected schemes. How voluntary then is the "voluntary subscription"? Beyond that, a form of mental enslavement is taking place that keeps companies obedient to the commercialized certification rules while holding to a sense of freedom that is more mental than real.
The enslaving schemes have several things in common. If the profit-driven intentions are set aside, the schemes could easily be replaced by fewer non-commercialized options. Their number could be greatly reduced where attention is given to what they have in common. The common grounds include the presupposed (often pretentious) intention of enabling food businesses or establishments to ensure the safety of food. They, of course, have more that food safety assurance pretenses in common:
A third fault, by virtue of the audit scores associated with the schemes, is their tendency to create an atmosphere that encourages cat and mouse or hide and seek games where auditors play the detectives who must find what system managers may be hiding to get higher scores.
The certificates issued following snap shot audits end up certifying no more than the time the audit was conducted. Even the usual auditor disclaimer acknowledges this fact. Consequently, the issued food safety certificates only stand to say the requirements of the scheme used were met, and only at the time of the audit. The certificates do not automatically attest that the products from the audited businesses are safe and meet the expected quality standards. In that sense, certificates are like fanciful adornments that do not necessarily reflect the character of the wearer. On the other hand, the systems for obtaining these certificates are sometimes involuntary, painful and restrictive with no lasting reformation of character where the wearers are hardened in non-compliant ways. Mind you, companies may mean well but the employees may not all be on board regarding compliance.
As far as I know, and I am willing to be otherwise convinced, no scheme has presented data to demonstrate its effectiveness in achieving the goal of safer food. Several objectives can be shown to have been achieved by the schemes such as increasing the popularity of the schemes; getting many companies to enlist; enforcing system documentation and record keeping as evidence of "compliance" or "due diligence"; increasing the number of certificates issued; increasing the scheme owners' revenue growth; etc. However, the quantified degree to which the intended goal of safer food has been achieved and the scope of that achievement remain elusive. I call this the common failure to demonstrate the achievement of the intended goal.
The Misunderstanding Leading to the Mistake:
Since auditors wish to come in, do their jobs quickly and get out, the clamour in the food safety and quality assessment industry is for "AUDITABLE" food safety and quality management systems on paper. This has led to the creation of paper-based and "auditable" yet ineffective systems.
How to do things may be standardized on paper but it is not the standard for measuring what is done. The actual results obtained constitute the standard against which what is done is measured to determine its validity and effectiveness.
The goal, and therefore the results must be relevant, correct and linked to the ultimate purpose of what is done. For example, well organized documentation, good plant floor behaviour during an audit and the existence of completed records are not the ultimate purpose and therefore not the goals of a product safety and quality management program or audit scheme. It may surprise you to know that many companies, managers, industry consultants and trainers misunderstand these to be the goals. Hence the widespread promotion of “what to do to pass third party audits”. The typical advise on “passing” third party audits have very little to do with the real-life experiences of those who use or consume the products.
If you find yourself on the spinning wheel because of demands from outside parties, you need to get off and rise above the illusion. Progress is not made simply because the wheel is spinning faster.
Thank You for Reading
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