The Benefits of an Internal Auditing System

If you’re someone who’s audited to a Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) scheme such as Safe Quality Food (SQF) or British Retail Consortium (BRC), you know that internal audits are a key part of your certification. In addition to being a critical element of your program verification, internal audits are one of the most common items that companies receive non-conformities for in an audit.  Meeting these GFSI requirements involves developing a strong internal audit program that utilizes trained auditors and is intentional, thoroughly planned out, and comprehensive.

Common Gaps

An internal audit is a complete review of the food safety system against major GFSI Audit Schemes, like SQF or BRC Standards.  If your internal audits are primarily comprised of facility walk-throughs for general Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) and hygiene compliance, you’ve missed the target. The intent of effective internal audits are a comprehensive review of all of your programs.

To get the most out of an internal audit, make sure it includes:

  • A multi-disciplinary internal audit team that can independently and objectively audit different departments, functions, and processes within the organization
  • A well-trained team that can effectively follow the audit plan and audit procedures
  • A systematic, planned, independent and documented process for obtaining evidence to review and evaluate against pre-arranged standard requirements.

Auditing and the PDCA Cycle

Your internal audit program fits into the concept of the Plan, Do, Check and Act (PDCA) Cycle, also known as the Deming Wheel. The PDCA cycle is a repetitive four stage cycle and is used for continuous improvement in many business processes.  Approaching audits with this process in mind allows companies to:

  • Drive continual improvement in their operation
  • Improve process efficiencies and reduce waste
  • Better direct valuable company resources where they’re most needed
  • Confirm compliance with your food safety standard
  • Be well prepared for your third-party audit

Plan

The planning stage is the beginning of any production process.  Carefully developing your company’s production processes and food safety programs will help ensure effective, efficient processes.  Once we have our plan in place, it’s time to get started.

Do

The “Do” stage is the process of implementing the programs as they’re documented.  This is the execution stage, where the majority of our efforts are spent.

Check

The “Check” stage is where the internal audits fit in.  This step, if done correctly, leads us to make the largest gains for our company.  And yet, too many companies don’t provide adequate resources to conduct these activities. During this step you gather information and analyze it, working to understand how efficiently your operation is running. The “Check” stage allows you to identify potential risks to your business, and creates opportunities for proactive improvement. Results include lower food safety risks for consumers, lower risk of recalls, and improved efficiencies.

Act

The final stage, “Act”, is where the improvements in your processes occur. This stage involves strategic, well-informed actions to improve our programs based on information gathered in the previous stage.  These improvements depend on having good data and analysis from internal audits and other process checks. If your company doesn’t take a rigorous approach to these activities, there won’t be adequate information to make well-informed decisions, resulting in lost opportunity to make significant gains in your operation.

Start Again

Finally, the process starts over.  After you act on what you’ve learned above and change your programs, you plan out the next day’s operation and start the production process all over again.

Crafting Your Program

So, what does an effective internal audit program look like?  An internal audit program can involve a variety of tools applied at different times, depending on the situation:

  • Procedure and record review
  • Direct observation of activities
  • Interviews and confirmation of employee awareness

In addition to what happens the day of the audit, your audit programs should include some structure.  To make sure audits are consistently performed, effective, and meet you GFSI or HACCP audit requirements, you’ll need the following:

  • Auditor training (and associated records of their training!) – check out our web-based course if you’re interested, here
  • An annual audit schedule that includes all aspects of the operation
  • A standardized form or record used to record audit results
  • A system for tracking corrective actions and making sure they are followed up on
  • A systematic or scheduled review of audit results with management, where they discuss needed changes and allocation of company resources

Auditing: Verification or Validation?

One of the required elements of your food safety program is conducting both verification and validation activities.  Depending on how they are done, internal audits can be either. If done thoroughly, they can help meet both internal audit requirements and validation requirements in a single activity, which can save you time and resources.

An audit conducted to verify an operation might look like this:

  1. Quick review of any relevant procedure, to ensure the auditor understands what’s supposed to be done by employees
  2. Observe employees and equipment for a few minutes, confirming practices
  3. Check the forms being completed that day
  4. Reporting results to management via an email or in a meeting

This approach is fine, but it’s simply a “spot check” verifying what’s happening today.  We’re basically answering the question, “are we doing it?”, or are we following our programs as designed.

In contrast, let’s take a look at how an internal audit might be used to not only satisfy the requirement of doing internal audits, but to actually validate our programs – leading to a much more effective, useful audit. In this case we’re not only asking “are we doing it?”, but we’re asking the question “is it effective?”  Using internal audits as a validation activity might look like this:

  1. Review the procedure before, and again after the audit, to identify any improvement opportunities or needed updates
  2. Observe a sampling of employees – not just one employee who’s on the line today, but perhaps multiple shifts or multiple employees.
  3. Talk to the employees as well. Confirm their knowledge of the process, why they’re doing it, any associated food safety risks, and whether they understand appropriate corrective actions if anything goes wrong.
  4. Do a thorough sampling of completed forms over the past months, spot-checking more than just what’s being recorded on today’s records
  5. Review customer complaints, results on inspection of product, or any other relevant data or information that might help you assess effectiveness of the particular activity that you’re auditing
  6. Meet with management to discuss effectiveness of the program, and determine whether changes are needed in equipment, people, or other resources, or if the program is effective as-is

The Bottom Line

Regardless of the size of your operation, you can’t afford to not have an effective internal audit program in place.  These audits can be scaled to fit the operation, and will look different from company to company, but the benefits of having a good program outweigh the resources needed to do it.  You may audit some programs with simply a verification approach, and you may audit others with an approach designed to help validate that they are effective.

Need more help? We understand that putting a system like this together can seem daunting. That’s why we have put together a list of resources to help you get started.

  • Register for our online Internal Auditor course. This program offers easy to understand audit training to help you verify the effectiveness of your food safety system. Whatever the management system, this training provides participants with the knowledge and skills needed to perform a successful internal audit of planning, prerequisite programs, and critical control points.
  • Download this article as a PDF and keep it as a resource as you set up your program
  • Internal Auditor Quiz – test your knowledge to see if you are ready to audit your system

Still need more information? Contact us at foodsafety@safefoodalliance.com and sign up for our newsletter to get the latest information on all things food safety.