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Picking The Right Food Safety Audit When Your Customers Are Asking For One

Author: Greg Komar

When a farmer is told by a customer to get a food safety audit, what questions should he or she be asking to get through the process?

Buyer Beware

Who do you trust? There are many types of food safety audits to choose from and many organizations that will gladly do them at your expense. But not all audits are appropriate for you and not all organizations should be conducting food safety audits. Hopefully the information provided here will help guide you through this decision-making process so that you can choose the right audit and auditor. But do your homework and be wary of making a quick decision… even if you are under pressure to act quickly.

Am I ready?

Getting an audit requires many things… You’ll need an understanding of basic farm food safety practices and good agricultural practices (GAPs). You need to know the audit requirements. You’ll need a documented and implemented farm food safety program, including three months of production documentation. If your customer is willing to pay for the audit you are one of the lucky few, but if not, you’ll need a budget for the audit and auditor travel expenses. Expenses vary but clearly the closer the auditor lives to the audit location, the less travel expenses should be. And, it will take at least a day of your time…usually during your busiest time of the year. For example, most audits require that the audit take place when product is being harvested or close to harvest time.

“I can’t emphasize enough how important it is that you make sure you know which audit your customer will accept. Hopefully, they’ll tell you but don’t hesitate to ask them what audit they want you to do.”

Which audit should I get?

I can’t emphasize enough how important it is that you make sure you know which audit your customer will accept. Hopefully, they’ll tell you but don’t hesitate to ask them what audit they want you to do. This may seem obvious, but it’s not uncommon for farmers to get the wrong audit due to misunderstandings. So do your homework…otherwise you might pass a food safety audit that won't actually get your product sold.

If you can’t find out directly from your customer, word of mouth from a trusted colleague can help, but always remember the buyer beware advice. If your trusted colleague isn’t versed in farm food safety, double check their advice. Additionally, your community farm bureau, the university extension service, commodity associations, and the ag commissioner’s office should have someone on staff who can point you in the right direction. Many large food retailers list the audits they accept on their websites including audit companies they recommend. Even if these retailers aren’t your customers, the information they provide can be very helpful.

Sweet Potato Harvest at Kirby Farms

Sweet Potato Harvest at Kirby Farms, USDA photo by Lance Cheung.

What are some basic farm food safety audit facts?

Not all audits are the same. In general, they fall into two categories: non-certification audits and certification audits. The differences boil down to time commitment, rigor, and cost. No matter which audit you choose, preparing for an audit is a serious commitment that will take time and resources.

If possible, and your customer accepts it, we often recommend getting a non-certification audit first as a “gateway” or “entry level” audit. This will help you confirm that your food safety program is meeting minimum standards. In the U.S., recognized food safety auditing companies, such as SCS Global Services, have developed farm food safety audits based on recognized guidance and requirements. Major associations, such as the United Fresh Produce Association, have also developed farm food safety audits, such as the Harmonized Audit for Field Operations and Harvesting.

Certification audits are generally more rigorous and a little more time-consuming. For one thing, the auditor, or “Certification Body” (CB), must be accredited to perform the work. Accreditation means that the CB also gets audited to make sure we follow international auditing rules. Common farm food safety certifications include GlobalGAP Integrated Farm Assurance Standard (GG IFA), PrimusGFS v2.1-2, and Safe Quality Food (SQF) v7.2. SCS Global is accredited for all of these standards. Certification audits typically require that corrective actions be submitted for any non-compliances found, that the audit report be reviewed for clerical and technical accuracy by someone other than the auditor, and that the audit be certified by an approved person other than the auditor. These additional steps and additional reviews add additional fees to the costs of these audits. There are also additional application and certification fees charged by the standard owners, in addition to those of the accredited CB. In future blogs I will discuss the benefits, and pitfalls, to certification which will shape the discussion regarding whether or not these additional fees are worth the cost. In general I think they are… but it’s a mixed bag.

One last thing.

All of the audits are slightly different in terms of scoring requirements and questions. Preparing for one type of audit may not prepare you perfectly for another. So if you start going down the path of getting one audit, try not to change your mind at the last minute hoping that your preparations will be enough for the other audit… Unless you made the choice to do an audit that your customer actually doesn’t accept, in which case you need to change.

Check the credentials of your auditor.

SCS has been providing farm-level food safety related auditing, training, and other services for three decades, provides recognized non-certification farm food safety audits, and is accredited to perform a wide variety of farm food safety certification audits. Our experienced, knowledgeable farm food safety experts and auditors meet the rigorous accreditation requirements. So when making the choice of who will be your auditor, make sure you find out about the company’s qualifications. If you have any additional questions about which farm food safety audit to choose, please visit our website: https://www.scsglobalservices.com/

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