Signs you are suffering from “Food Safety Audit Fatigue”

… and ways to combat this common syndrome

What! Another Audit?

“It’s like I get one auditor out of my office and another one is waiting.  All I seem to do these days is answer the same questions over and over and over again.” – QA Manager

Do you feel like you are always being audited? 

Do you feel that despite all the audits that your standard of food safety is not getting any better or the findings are not adding any meaningful insights? 

Are the audit results becoming very predictable?

If this is the case you could be suffering from audit fatigue and/or audit paralysis? 

“Audit fatigue is defined as a condition that results when a company repeatedly conducts the same audit or gets exposed to a significant number of external audits and the findings do not reveal new meaningful insights.”

“Audit paralysis is a condition closely related to audit fatigue. Audit paralysis restrains a company from further improvement as it binds a participating company to a set of audit requirements that they already exceed or do not agree with.” 

How did we get into this situation?

One of the reasons the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) certification program was put in place was to reduce the number of external audits.  The GFSI vision is for “once certified, accepted everywhere” food safety compliance audits. Then why is a single certification not enough and that many customers insist on their own additional audits or addendums?

Let us take a step back and ask “Why do we need any kind of food safety audit at all?” If enterprises did the right thing, we would not need any audits. Food safety incidents continue even though we have some of the most rigorous food safety requirements than any time in our history.  Well there-in lies part of the problem.  There is a lack of trust and looking back at our chequered history of food safety incidences there are good reasons for the lack of trust.  Lack of trust in the supplier and lack of trust in the certification process or certification bodies (CB’s).  To the extent where some customers even dictate which CB’s to use. If a customer has experience in sub-par auditing of their own systems or the ability to “purchase” a certificate, then they think that their suppliers can and do the same.  As a result “Trust is Lost”.

There is another reason and that is the design of our supply chain management systems.  There is a perception with some companies that in order to meet Supplier Quality Assurance (SQA) requirements, they have to audit their suppliers.  Auditing is only a small part of SQA and there are many other ways to manage food safety along the supply chain that are far better than auditing.  Yet auditing seems to be the default. 

In my HACCP courses we discuss whether supplier quality assurance or vendor management programs are a CCP or not.  One of my arguments that it cannot be a CCP is because “we cannot control our suppliers!”  We think we can control them by enforcing systems, specifications and audits on suppliers.  In many cases they comply “to keep the business” but we are fooling ourselves if we think we can control the supplier.  As long as there is a lack of trust, fear of a food safety incident and a continued need to try and control our suppliers then we are going to continue to see more and more audits.

Food Safety Audits do not control food safety!!!!!

“A Food Safety Audit focuses on gathering information about a food business to identify any areas of potential improvement in the business’s food safety processes and systems. It also identifies areas of the business that have deficiencies and the appropriate action to correct any deficiencies”

Who is most prone to audit fatigue?

Looking at the audit life cycle, it seems that enterprises that are in the Predictive Stage of the audit life cycle seem to be more prone to audit fatigue and paralysis

Audit life cycle

  • Commencement Stage – a company decides it’s time to develop a food safety program
  • Discovery Stage – a company conducts its first food safety audit
  • Maturation Stage – a company gets audited a number of times and with each audit, they obtain value and improve their programmes
  • Predictive Stage – there comes a time when a company finds that repeated audits no longer provide them with significant value

If your company is at the Predictive Stage of the audit life cycle it is probably time to make some changes in the way you measure your company’s food safety performance and reinvent yourself and the way you look at audits.

How can we combat audit fatigue and paralysis?

My suggestions will focus on what an individual enterprise can control and not what falls under government or industry oversight, although there is clearly a lot they also need to do.

  • Stop trying to control your supplier

Supplier Quality Assurance or vendor management is not a control point.  It is a management program.  Accept the things you cannot control and focus more on controlling what you can.  Organisations should work together with suppliers to develop best practices and help them improve their performance over time, rather than apply punitive actions to those who fall short. This type of supply chain management strategy focuses on nurturing collaboration to improve supplier relationships, overall efficiency, and the reliability and quality of assessment data. 

  • Leverage Technology

We are already at the point where data sharing is something that can be done easily using blockchain technologies and/or permission-based data sharing.  Blockchain technology is able to reduce the cost, time and labour that’s involved in auditing and increase confidence in food safety records.

  • Manage the audit process

If we cannot reduce the number of audits, we definitely can improve the way we manage them to get the most out of them.

Assign a Food Safety Audit Champion that manages the audit process relieving other departments and individuals of undue administrative stress

Time It Right.  For announced auditsdetermine the order the audits need to happen. Look at your organisation’s auditable universe, when the last audits were and where are there intercepts. Then tie them together in an audit plan.

Conduct unannounced audits.  It may sound counter intuitive as you cannot plan for these audits. However, unannounced audits raise the bar and force the company to set up systems, train staff and develop a culture to manage unannounced audits.  Unannounced audits are more difficult to prepare for therefor give a more realistic picture of the standard of food safety and reduce the ebbs and flows in standards that occur before and after audits.     

Create one report to “Rule them All”. Track all your audit and compliance findings to implement them efficiently across your enterprise by reporting on results in a consolidated manner. The entire organisation needs to know what risks were uncovered and improvements made to make audits worthwhile.

Streamline antiquated data-gathering methods.  Move away from paper-based systems to electronic records. Allow auditors access to general program information through portals that can be accessed online anytime and from anywhere. When an auditor eventually visits the factory, time can be better spent conducting physical inspections and reviewing sensitive information that cannot be shared online.   

  • Change your mindset

“We have, over time, very effectively formalised this game we call food safety programming to a fine art of giving rehearsed responses to formalised questions. That’s not making food safer! We’ve offered rewards for the “appearance” of food safety and the accomplishment of measurements that can be manipulated. We need to stop looking at audits as a game we play or a test we need to pass. 

Consider the following slight changes we can make in mindset to add more value to the audit:

  1. Set your standards higher than what is externally expected
  2. Write your programs for the people that are using them, not for the auditors. 
  3. Only undertake tasks that add value and that were not shrouded in red tape. 
  4. Use internal auditors that are as good if not better than the external auditors. 
  5. Use audits as a way to proactively drive improvement and not as a test that must be passed at all costs.
  6. Have FUN!! It is an audit not a colonoscopy……although it may often feel like one!
  • Aim for world-class excellence in food safety

“One of the challenges when you have dozens of audits is that you can often have dozens of different plans on how to improve or dozens of different and sometimes conflicting requirements to meet”  

Companies who have  a reactive food safety culture are going to experience this.  Companies with proactive food safety look at the merits of each requirement and decide whether they are going to apply them or not.  When they decide to implement a requirement, they put 100% into it for their own benefits and not as a half-hearted, knee-jerk reaction to what an auditor or customer says.

 “Repeating the same audit and never raising the bar to a higher level of excellence dooms your food safety culture to mediocrity. Strive for excellence…it’s highly motivating!”

World-class companies actually embrace audits but interestingly they get less audits.  There are some companies with world-class food safety that have shown an 80% reduction in audits because they are proactive and lead rather than being reactive and follow.

You are less likely to get audit paralysis or fatigue when you are being challenged and the audits are adding value to your business.

I am excited to have the ABC Audit company inspect my factory because they always challenge me to get better and the audit adds value to my business” – QA Manager

Anti- “Audit Fatigue” Checklist

  • Stop trying to control your supplier
  • Leverage technology
  • Manage the audit process
  • Change your perspective
  • Aim for World-class Food Safety Excellence

This article was written by Anthony Raschke, who is the Technical Director at EyeOnRisk.  He is an internationally recognised Food Safety Expert who aims to provide food safety leaders with the skills and opportunities to become food safety champions and excel in their field.

If you enjoyed this article you may also be interested in:

The one simple question that dramatically changed my perspective on food safety audits

The Root Cause of Root Cause Analysis Failures in the Food Industry

Blockchain in the Food Industry