At some point, every food facility will be the subject of an inspection by federal, state, or local authorities. While maintaining and recalling documentation for these audits may be stressful and inevitable, one thing you can control is your preparedness. Internal audits can bolster your facility’s readiness to pass these true tests, and they also give you a real window into your facility’s safety apparatus: into what is working well and what could use some improvement. By systematically reviewing the procedures that you employ, and the documents you collect, you will obtain valuable insights into what corrective actions need to be taken next. The final step, then, of internal audits, is to create more robust preventive controls and raise standards of safety.2,3
Standards and Criteria
First, you need to identify the standards and criteria by which you can determine whether your farm is meeting its safety requirements. These standards, at the minimum, should logically be required standards set by federal, state, and local governments, as well as the quality demanded by retailers and consumers, though your standards may be as stringent as you desire. Other widely utilized standards include those of organic certification, Good Agricultural Practices/Good Handling Practices, and Current Good Manufacturing Practices. Regardless of the standards chosen, these standards must be objective, well-communicated, and consistent throughout the audit.
Process and Program
Next, identify each process and program that your facility employs with the aim of mitigating food safety hazards. If your farm is currently under a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) plan or a Hazard Analysis and Risk-based Preventive Controls (HARPC) plan, then these procedures will be the most important to survey, as are other formal procedures outlined in your facility’s existing food safety plan. In addition, you will need to identify appropriate tests for each procedure to direct your auditors. Informal customs or practices, such as worker hygiene or management’s role in supervision, which may add or detract to the sanitation of your facility, should not be ignored, either; though it might be difficult to objectively monitor your facility’s culture of safety, these factors have just as much, and potentially more, of a role to play in your facility’s safety results.
At this point, your auditor or team of auditors will be well-prepared to carry out the tasks set before them. The aim of internal audits is to explore the effectiveness of your facility’s procedures more deeply than an external audit would – after all, you are conducting an internal audit to prevent unwelcome surprises in the form of unsatisfactory external audits. To leave no stone unturned, it is recommended that your internal audits last longer than external audits, either over one continuous period or broken up over multiple periods, perhaps per department or component. Employees should be reminded to continue working throughout the audit as if it were any other day. To make these audits truly effective, ensure that employees view them as an avenue for growth rather than a detour from the task at hand. Besides the immediately apparent benefits of improving any issues before they arise in an external audit, it is important to reaffirm the value of building up trust in the company’s practices and pride in its attention to detail.3
After your auditor or auditing team has finished their observations, it’s then time to write a report, in detail, based on the performances of your processes as held to the standards which you established. This report should be thorough, addressing each component of the audit as described as customized to your facility and then laying out recommendations for improvement. Based on positive findings, your firm may reward success through positive incentives and, if possible, continue to optimize these working practices. On the recommendations for improvement, your facility needs to take the most important step of all. You then should, if necessary, change existing procedures, substitute for old ones, add new practices, and find new ways to change your company culture of safety through measurable targets.5
Internal audits are rarely an exciting prospect for agricultural firms, but they are the best way to learn from the past, and create better outcomes for your business and for your customers. In the words of the management thinker Peter Drucker, “Follow effective action with quiet reflection. From the quiet reflection will come even more effective action.”