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Surviving a Third-Party Audit: Q&A With Food Safety Specialist

Third-party audits are becoming a common way for brands to showcase safe food production and gain access to new markets; however, they require careful planning and preparation.

SFA's upcoming Regulatory Update webinar, "How to Survive a Third-Party Audit" will discuss essential training and tools needed to schedule and carry out an audit. It takes place tomorrow, May 4 at 1 p.m. EST and is hosted by two industry experts: Amanda Kinchla, associate extension professor at The University of Massachusetts's Department of Food Science, and Dave Seddon, co-founder of, a third-party auditing service. Register now.

SFA News Daily Spoke with Anne Fitzgerald, research specialist at the Northeast Center to Advance Food Safety at The University of Vermont, the organizer of the upcoming education session.

When should a specialty food business consider an audit?

Specialty food businesses should consider audits after they have a well-established food safety plan (with supporting records that demonstrate control) and written policies for all the respective quality programs (i.e., good manufacturing practices, facilities, cleaning & sanitation, training, etc.). An audit can only evaluate a snapshot of your overall food safety and quality system and so taking the time to establish written procedures, policies, and records is critical in demonstrating that your facility has its production under control. Additionally, one should also compare the requirements of the audit against all implemented programs to ensure compliance and completion of tasks, such as testing water inside the facility and other preventive measures.

What mistakes do you see specialty food businesses make when beginning the audit process?

One of the most common mistakes for those initiating an audit is grossly underestimating the amount of time to build, implement, and manage the food safety systems.  Food safety and quality programs are not “set it and forget it” systems–they require continuous monitoring and management.

Businesses that develop programs as part of preparations for an audit, without taking the time and effort to consistently implement and manage them, will have significant challenges in passing. Businesses that have leadership teams from the top down that practice and demonstrate a strong food safety culture and continuously aim to keep food safety top of mind have a significantly easier time passing an audit.

Does the process tend to differ based on the third-party firm conducting the audit?

It is important to know what type of audit you are going for and what is used to assess the audit. In the webinar, we will briefly discuss the different types of audit schemas. The general format doesn’t change though through assessment, planning, implementation, and evaluation, but the rubric that each audit uses can provide more insight.

What specialty food businesses tend to require a third-party audit?

In the field, we see more and more businesses that are asking for audits to maintain vendor status and meet buyer requirements. For example, in New England, Whole Foods has been making this request for specialty food products that have not historically needed audits to sell in their stores. This has expanded to many other companies whose requirements have shifted to a higher level, GFSI types of audits. Historically, high-risk foods, especially those on the FDA’s Traceability List, were targets for third-party audits, but increasingly the market has continued to expand the requirement for all food categories.

What are the most important considerations when working with a third party to carry out an audit?

A few key considerations:

Your whole team needs to be aware and involved in the process. Auditors may ask your line operators about the types of training they have had; what food safety controls they are responsible for or where to find standard operating procedures. Be sure that you are realistic about how long it will take to prepare the procedures, processes, and records.

Before you consider initiating the third-party audit process, make sure that you have developed and implemented your GMPs and food safety plan and have records supporting each.  And if you are subject to Preventive Controls, ensure the preventative controls qualified individual is present and has performed function according to FDA requirements.

What do you hope specialty food businesses get out of the session?

We hope that businesses will have a stronger awareness of the different types of audit schemas available within the marketplace and that they evaluate the status of their respective food safety plans to determine what improvements may be needed to initiate an audit.  We want businesses to understand the value of a strong foundation in HACCP and Preventive Controls and of utilizing the resources provided in the NECAFS Processors Food Safety Toolkit.

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