Food Safety Magazine

Signature Series | September 15, 2020

Inspiration and Innovation out of Crisis—The Value of Virtual Auditing

By Nicole Keresztes-James

Inspiration and Innovation out of Crisis—The Value of Virtual Auditing

The year 2020 has been full of surprises, many of which no one would ever have foreseen or requested. The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has turned everyone’s world upside down, and it is not easy to find the positive side of such a challenging global health crisis.

While the global pandemic has disrupted the way of working for many individuals and organizations, it has also been the necessity that has inspired invention. As the prohibition of travel and physical interactions between people became more and more commonplace, new modes of virtual interaction came to the forefront and revealed capabilities that had not been previously realized. These capabilities of virtual interaction have been realized as a valuable tool in the business of auditing, particularly auditing in facilities connected to the food industry.

Historically, audits in the food industry have required auditors to be physically present in the facilities being audited. During this physical interaction at the site, the auditor would combine face-to-face interviews and document review with traditional inspection techniques to establish whether the site was compliant to the standard being audited. The inspections would focus on structure, cleanliness, and hygienic conditions and practices at the site. The creation of the Global Food Safety Initiative in 2000 introduced a system of benchmarked standards for auditing, where facilities could have just one audit to satisfy many customers. However, the fact is that, in early 2020, there were still many different types of supply chain audits happening on-site around the world to satisfy the unique requirements of each customer.

Enter the pandemic and the cessation of all types of physical interactions. While several service industries saw significant drops in business, others (such as companies connected to retail businesses) saw increased demand. Manufacturing sites remained in operation and even ramped up activity, as the supply of food was designated an essential service. Facilities connected to the food industry had to contend with this increase in demand while balancing a myriad of other challenges, including staffing and supply chain changes, and issues that arose due to movement restrictions around the world. The auditing world also faced similar challenges with protecting customers and clients while continuing to help with solutions that didn’t compound the crisis with other food safety and quality issues.

One such solution was a speedy pivot to innovate auditing using remote technology, also known as information communication technology (ICT). ICT involves any virtual technology platform that allows audits to be accomplished and includes all manner of livestreaming, teleconferencing, and data transfer systems. COVID-19 has been a disruptor to “business as usual” and made traditional on-site physical auditing no longer feasible. However, the need for the ability to audit a facility’s programs, policies, and processes remains as important as ever. Business continuity is not a new topic in the realm of supplier management systems. However, unlike the simulated business continuity crisis events that facilities are used to conducting to test their systems, now they are facing unprecedented real challenges to their programs. ICT allows auditors the opportunity to assess business continuity in action, evaluating the ability of facilities to address these real challenges appropriately based on their unique risks and allowing technology-enabled “eyes” into a facility where physical eyes cannot be present.

As is the case with any pivot away from traditional methodology, remote auditing and ICT do not come without concerns for integrity. One such significant concern is the ability to conduct a thorough inspection of a facility using ICT. Traditionally, this would be done with an auditor physically moving through the site, using all senses to assess conformity and nonconformity. Certainly, there are senses that are lost in a remote inspection situation—different odors, activity happening outside of a camera angle, and peripheral noises will not be as apparent to auditors when they are not present on-site. Connectivity issues can also hamper the livestreaming of a facility walkthrough, especially in heavily insulated areas of a site (such as a cooler or freezer) or for facilities located in more isolated areas. However, providing additional tools and methods, as well as training to auditors, can go a long way to overcome sensory loss in these remote assessments. Emphasizing auditor-led facility tours using maps and marrying livestreaming with targeted video and photographic evidence taken on the day of the audit can build a picture for auditors as they evaluate structure, cleanliness, and hygienic conditions and practices. Continuous improvements made in ICT tools will also be hugely beneficial. Many options are being employed for the various needs related to virtual auditing: handheld devices, body-mounted cameras, closed-circuit video units installed at the facility, glasses enabled with livestreaming and recording functionalities, and drone technology. As these technologies evolve and innovate to the needs of the users, the ability to utilize these technologies to conduct thorough site inspections will improve.

Another significant concern raised around the integrity of a remotely conducted audit is security of information. In a traditional, on-site audit model, documents and records go no further than the physical space of a facility. In a virtual audit, these same documents and records must make the journey to the auditor through cyberspace, opening the risk of a security breach. It is crucial that facilities undergoing remote audits are confident that the audit firms with whom they are partnering view data security with the utmost priority. Audit firms must be comfortable and open with the measures they take to ensure that information is not vulnerable to hackers, including the use of data transfer platforms that are secure and capable of maintaining confidentiality.

As industries traditionally used to having in-person audits continue to acclimate to the use of ICT and remote audits, the benefits of this type of assessment approach will become more and more apparent. While the global pandemic has proven to be an extreme example of how business can be disrupted, it has provided an environment open to new ways of continuing that business. In the days, weeks, and months to come, the gains and improvements made in how to audit effectively in a virtual context will open new opportunities for insight into facilities and their capabilities, regardless of where those facilities are in the world. It will also provide sustainable solutions to organizations as they evaluate their own impact on the future of the planet, including how travel fits into that vision. Additionally, it will advance the development and competency of auditors and others by allowing more frequent access to training opportunities, experiential learning, and customer connection through participation in virtual visits, which would not have been as available in the past. In the end, while the inspiration to pivot to virtual auditing has come from a terrible global crisis, the gains that have been and will continue to be made to the integrity and capability of ICT have sealed their enduring value in the future.

NSF International helps manufacturers, regulators, and consumers to develop public health standards and certification programs that help to protect the world's food, water, consumer products, and the environment. Visit NSF.org for more information.

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