According to the Global Food Safety Resource (GSFR), “audits are a crucial component of maintaining food safety standards by providing transparency and assurance that standards are being maintained.” But the changing nature of both the food industry and assurance in the post-pandemic world is leading to a change in the key skills for a food auditor and the capabilities needed.
Auditors play a crucial role behind the scenes. They are the ‘watchdogs’ of food safety, charged with ensuring that businesses are adhering to standards — not just on paper, but in practice every day in their facilities. Their work is critical to maintaining confidence in the integrity of standards and the safety of the food we all take for granted. It can quite literally be a matter of life and death.
Although food safety audits are today, in large part, driven by technology, the role that food safety auditors play hasn’t really changed; they still need to be highly skilled and specialised due to the sensitivities of their work. Auditing remains a human-led process and the skills and attributes of an auditor have a real impact on the overall quality of an audit, how it is carried out, what the findings are, and the impact on the end consumer.
Core skills that any food safety auditor must therefore possess to conduct an effective audit include the ability to: know when to observe; when to ask questions; when to listen; what to record; and to always be curious. Inherent in all of this are soft skills — communication, behavioural, interpersonal, critical thinking, and organisational skills — and more specialist skills, such as being able to apply high-level technical knowledge during both auditing and training, and the ability to thoroughly assess risk through observation and questioning.
However, the growing use of technology solutions in the food safety audit space has led to a change in the skills and capabilities that today’s auditors need. In addition to the core skills and attributes already mentioned, equally as important is the ability for audit professionals to adapt to emerging, tech-led trends and ensure consistent service delivery.
The most obvious change driven by the pandemic was the emergence of remote auditing. Many food producers are now using powerful tech tools to undertake remote audits, in some cases conducting elements of the process under the watchful eye of a third-party auditor. This was almost unheard of pre-pandemic but has been one of the success stories of pandemic-induced disruption - and while remote audits are not GFSI recognised, they look certain to remain part of the food safety toolkit.
With this development come new challenges for food safety auditors, and managing these will, among other things, require auditors to be able to conduct thorough forward planning, build an understanding of the changing nature of audit risks in the post-pandemic world, and get comfortable with leveraging technology to engage with clients and deliver results.
Alongside technology, we must also consider the trend towards data analytics. Based on the right data, audits can be driven by a smarter, risk-based process, rather than checklists and ticking the boxes. This benefits everyone: the company, which is getting a professional, independent view of its risks; the auditor, whose profession is going to be far more interesting (which attracts in turn more young professionals); and the consumer, who can trust that food is safe, everywhere.
However, there is also a downside. The requirement for ever-more extensive reporting has grown and grown in recent years – leaving little or no room for proper shop-floor audit, interviewing operators about their food safety knowledge and developing an understanding of the organisation’s food safety culture.
Let’s hope we find a common sense approach, to continue to make the food auditing profession attractive to existing - and most importantly to young - professionals. Building on the need for expert knowledge and softer skills, while embracing technology, remote and hybrid audit models and the opportunities in data driven audit approaches. This is what’s required of tomorrow’s food safety auditors.
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