There’s never a dull year in the food sector. There are always new trends, supply chain challenges, the unpredictability of weather and so many other things that can cause disruption. But, from my earlier days as a chef to my role today as Director of Compliance for the food sector at BSI, I’ve never had a more challenging year professionally than 2020.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the food sector to consider new and innovative ways of meeting market demands while also keeping food safe and sustainable. And what has impressed me is the sector’s ability to survive the immense challenges presented by COVID-19.
Despite its severity, the pandemic has also managed to inspire some positive changes too. For example, we’re seeing an increase in the use of immersive technologies to conduct remote audits. How broadly this technology has been used has varied during the pandemic.
First and foremost, remote audits and risk assessments have helped to keep food safe for consumers. And, our clients are relieved that they have been able maintain their audit cycle; they recognize how critical having practices and processes in place has been to retaining resilience during the pandemic. Remote audits can also improve the sustainability of assessments, both environmentally and from the perspective of wellbeing.
The ability to participate via technology limits the number of people needed on site; helping to reduce the risk of an outbreak. It has helped to keep staff out of harm’s way as the team members who need to participate can join the audit from their laptops or phones from home, reducing the need to travel and therefore the possibility of coming into contact with COVID-19.
It also allows more people to participate so that an organization’s expertise can be fully highlighted and the ability to join and leave the meeting reduces the impact on their productivity.
Though it’s still a bit early to have significant data to support it, if my LinkedIn feed is any indication, the majority of people are finding that not having to commute to work as regularly and the ability to work from home is improving overall work-life balance given the additional, non-work-related stress COVID-19 is adding to the mix.
Remote audits can also improve work-life balance for food safety auditors. Many feel as though they live their lives on the road and report that their personal lives suffer. Increasing use of remote audits can support a better balance for both the auditor and auditee.
Also linked to a reduction in travel is, obviously, a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. In 2019, BSI conducted thousands of onsite food audits. In smaller countries our auditors normally travel by car. However, in larger countries like Australia, Canada, China and the Russian Federation where cities and towns can be spread further apart, air travel is necessary. As onsite audits can also require our clients’ team members to travel. Increasing the use of remote audits can support both certification bodies’ and their clients’ goals of a recovery that doesn’t increase our collective impact on the environment.
We have been delivering audits remotely for HACCP & GMP and ISO 22000 (Food safety management systems) since March; more than six months later, some food safety certification programme owners have developed options to offer full remote audits for food organizations located in areas where extraordinary events have restricted access and travel to certified sites.
Prior to the availability of full remote options for BRCGS, FSSC 22000 and SQF certifications, we worked with our clients to extend certificates or conduct GFSI partially remote audits that use some remote technology to conduct system documentation and record reviews as well as staff interviews, followed by an onsite audit.
While full remote audits against these programmes won’t be GFSI recognized, they are a good option for sites where access isn’t possible, or travel restrictions are in place. To help food sector organizations understand their options, we’ve recently hosted a series of webinars on the various options across these three programmes and they’re now available on demand.
The process of a remote audit can have its challenges. The body language cues each side can pick up from the other often helps facilitate an onsite audit experience. The sound and connectivity levels in some manufacturing facilities also interfere with the inspection of production or storage areas.
To support our clients’ transition to remote audits, we’ve taken feedback and experience from 60,000+ remote audits we have already conducted and shared it online. Overall, the client feedback we’ve received about remote auditing across all the management systems we certify has been positive.
During the audit planning stage, we also provide direct, one-on-one tips for our clients to prepare for remote audits and work with them to ensure the right technology is in place to suit their situation and audit.
So, what does the future hold for remote auditing in food? While onsite audit activity can’t be abandoned entirely, a balanced use of onsite and remote auditing has the potential to maximize the benefits we’re seeing evidence of.
If the use of remote audits is extended to support certification cycles for all food safety schemes, regardless of the type of standard or the ability to access sites, organizations that have KPIs around food safety, employee wellbeing and environmental impact all stand to benefit.
About the author
Todd Redwood is BSI’s Director of Global Food and Retail Supply Chain Operations and Compliance. He’s been helping food-related businesses deliver safe, sustainable and socially responsible food to tables around the world for over 25 years. Based in Sydney, Australia, Todd is responsible for leading all operations, compliance and governance aspects relating to food assurance and training for BSI.