October 2020

The Spectrum of Food Safety Audits: Remote Audits, On-Site Audits and the Future of Real-Time Monitoring

Tom Chestnut, Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, describes the future of augmented intelligence and the new and innovative spectrum of food safety auditing solutions currently available.
Inspection being preformed

Seventy-five years ago, dining out was on the rise, but surprisingly the inspection of foodservice equipment was non-existent. This meant consumers dined out without any guarantee that their health and safety was being protected. NSF International was founded to address this risk and introduced the first food equipment standards – NSF Standards 1 and 2 – in 1952 to ensure the safety and upkeep of soda fountain and luncheonette equipment. To confirm compliance, an auditor was required to visit the manufacturing location, examine the equipment, interview personnel, review paperwork and complete the audit report on-site.

Fast forward to today and the fundamental concepts of food safety audits remain the same, but the logistics have become increasingly more complex. Today’s on-site audit may require a full day of travel, one to two days of in-person meetings, security clearances, scheduling between multiple parties and the detailed review of complex plans, procedures and engineering controls while on-site at the production facility.

Now in the midst of a global pandemic, the logistics of an on-site audit seem even more complex. With new safety measures requiring social distancing and face coverings, many food manufacturers and retailers have had to train new employees, physically relocate workstations, and establish new shifts and reoccurring cleaning protocols. The thought of arranging a routine food safety audit on top of all that may seem overwhelming, especially with travel restrictions, strict visitor policies and mandated quarantine procedures in place.

Fortunately, advances in technology provide a better method of delivering food safety audits, and certifying bodies like NSF International have been finding new and innovative ways to apply this technology to conducting audits. Plus, various food safety certified program owners (CPOs) are now accepting different forms of audits ranging from fully on-site or fully remote to a blended combination of the two. By combining experience and technology, each audit method strives to achieve the same level of rigor as traditional on-site audits so there is no or minimal risk to the business being audited. Though the approach may seem different, the core tenets of an audit remain the same as they were 75 years ago; they should be fit for purpose and designed to protect the global food supply chain. Now let’s look at the different types of auditing solutions and when each one may be most appropriate.

Remote Audits

As the world looks to minimize the spread of COVID-19 and limit face-to-face interactions, many are discovering remote solutions. From doctor appointments to school and virtual grocery shopping, everyone is transitioning online. While the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly accelerated the interest of remote food safety audits, NSF International has been at the forefront of adopting remote audits and remote technology in the testing, inspection and certification industry for several years.

In 2014, NSF approached Google with an idea for innovating its food safety audits where the auditor wouldn’t have to leave their office or home. Using Glass with NSF’s EyeSucceed software, the auditee livestreams their point of view to a remote auditor who can use real-time voice and text commands to complete each phase of the audit. A kit containing Glass and other supplies such as a thermometer, chlorine test strips, alcohol wipes and a flashlight is sent to the auditee prior to the audit. Then, from behind a computer at a remote location, the auditor walks the auditee through the evaluation step-by-step as if they were physically present.

Five years ago, the first remote food safety audit was conducted at a foodservice location on Google’s campus in Mountain View, California, while the auditor was stationed approximately 350 miles away in Los Angeles. Since then, NSF developed software updates for EyeSucceed to conduct shadow audits and auditor calibrations, which the American National Standards Institute uses to evaluate the quality of audits. Then in 2018, EyeSucceed was deployed during the height of an avian influenza outbreak in Hungary to remotely audit 13 farms in Patagonia’s supply chain to the Global Traceable Down Standard, which verifies the ethical and responsible sourcing of down for garments. Two years later, Yum! Brands used EyeSucceed to conduct food safety audits of its Barbados KFC franchisees to work around travel restrictions enforced during the COVID-19 lockdown. It’s examples like these that make NSF’s EyeSucceed more relevant than ever before.

Many international food safety CPOs such as the Brand Reputation Compliance Global Standards (BRCGS) and Safe Quality Food Institute (SQFI) are allowing information, communication and technology (ICT) such as smart glass technology, video conferencing and file sharing as remote alternatives to on-site audits during COVID-19. Most CPOs and certifying bodies require the completion of a risk/feasibility assessment to confirm eligibility, which covers everything from connectivity to high-risk areas of production.

On-Site Audits

For many, the prospect of going remote may not be realistic. There are a variety of reasons why manufacturers and retailers are still seeking on-site audits despite the digital alternatives currently available: Perhaps their CPO doesn’t accept remote audits, their facility is deemed too high risk or the retailer just feels more comfortable with the method and approach of a traditional on-site audit. Whatever the reason may be, on-site food safety audits are still available and are being conducted in a safe and efficient manner.

NSF’s global audit team is committed to protecting human health and actively managing the risk of pathogen exposure. All NSF auditors are required to comply with COVID-19 safety measures, which involves daily temperature checks, practicing social distancing, sanitizing all auditing tools and wearing a mask. Any auditor that has been exposed to the virus or is feeling ill must self-quarantine and not come to work.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, NSF created its own verification program of its auditors. The program involves specific training and verification of competency, including the completion of a pathogen overview, instructions on protection from the virus and an auditing protocol. To comply with the auditing protocol, the auditor is required to maintain an adequate inventory of personal protective equipment (PPE). Applying the same rigor that auditors hold their clients to, the verification is granted to auditors who receive satisfactory feedback from the client gathered by an electronic or phone survey, witness audit and randomized confirmation of PPE.

Even in the face of a pandemic, the majority of food safety audits are done on-site. With the appropriate safety measures and auditor verification programs in place, these audits are handled with the utmost scrutiny and safety.

Blended or Partial Remote Audits

A blended or partial remote auditing philosophy allows for some components of the audit to be conducted on-site while other components are conducted remotely. The remote portion consists of documentation reviews of procedures, policies and employee interviews. Once completed, the audit is followed by an on-site audit visit, involving inspections, evaluation of Good Manufacturing Practices and verification of food safety systems. Blended or partial remote audits can only take place once a risk/feasibility assessment has been conducted and a mutual agreement has been signed between the client and the certifying body. Depending on the food safety CPO, certain requirements may be enforced. For example, SQFI states that remote activities can only account for up to 50% of the audit duration; a minimum of 50% of the audit still needs to be held on-site. Under SQFI requirements, the on-site audit needs to be conducted within 30 days of the remote activity, barring extenuating circumstances.

The Future of Auditing: Real-Time Monitoring

Imagine having the ability to monitor in real time as a foodservice employee follows the step-by-step requirements that are needed to complete a job task. Taking it a step further, any deviation from the correct process results in the employee being immediately notified. Now imagine all the output, including time between steps, deviation from correct procedures and whether corrective actions were taken, is uploaded into the cloud, and then analyzed and used to develop process improvements.

Welcome to the new world of augmented intelligence where human error can be eliminated using smart glasses and advanced software. This is the future of food and workplace safety, and it holds the key to reducing labor costs and optimizing operational execution throughout the food industry.

NSF is investing in augmented intelligence, combined with smart glass technology, to transform the role of today’s auditor. In October 2019, NSF patented this concept to detect and correct human error in foodservice in real time. No longer will auditors be required on-site, as food safety and quality verification will be self-guided through smart glasses that automatically extract key data like temperatures from food equipment. The future auditor role will evolve to focus more on data analytics and the subsequent process improvements that may be needed to facilitate better and more efficient execution of job tasks.

Auditing is constantly evolving and being conducted in new and smart ways. Whether on-site, remote or blended/partial remote audits, the wide spectrum of options available today can accommodate unique situations and challenges. It is not one size fits all. Though the approaches may seem different, each audit is designed to protect the global food supply chain just as NSF has for the last 75 years. I look forward to the future and the new and innovative auditing solutions that are uncovered along the way.

About the Author

Tom Chestnut, Vice President and Chief Operating Officer