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Wendy White

Management

The Do’s and Don’ts of Preparing a New Facility for the First Audit

Prioritizing what is truly important

Published: Tuesday, February 12, 2019 - 12:03

Starting a new facility in the food-processing industry is an enormous undertaking. There are thousands of things that must be accomplished, from hiring and training new staff to ordering and installing equipment. This scenario is a perfect example of “too much to do and not enough time to do it.”

To further complicate the situation, most customers require one or more audits of the site’s food safety quality (FSQ) system before the first sellable product can be produced on the line. These qualifying assessments range from a casual, on-site visit by the customer to a global food safety initiative (GFSI) audit.

Meeting the ever-increasing standards of something as daunting as a full-blown GFSI audit can be an intimidating prospect, and success can be achieved only through strategic planning. There is so much to be done to get the plant running before looming deadlines, which often leaves little time to prepare for initial audits. This is a race against the clock, but success is possible through alignment, engagement, planning, and prioritization.

Get everyone on the same page

The biggest pitfall for quality leaders is trying to execute all the audit preparations themselves or only relying on members of the quality department. The key to avoiding this is to engage management and distribute audit preparation activities across different departments. Before this can happen, a strategy, or audit preparation plan, must be developed and agreed upon by all applicable stakeholders. Upper management must be involved and aligned on the resources needed.

This process starts with an internal assessment of the audit requirements to understand where the gaps are and determine the best solutions. Create a sensible timeline and have routine follow-up meetings to discuss progress, and assign resources. Make adjustments to the plan where needed and ensure that there is proper accountability for those responsible.

Another mistake is ignoring employees outside of upper management. Understand who is going to be executing these programs and involve them from the start. Sometimes creating effective systems isn’t as big a challenge as creating sustainable ones. The best way to ensure that FSQ systems will continue to operate smoothly comes from engaging the employees who carry out the day-to-day operations. Gain buy-in by empowering them to take part in how quality tasks are monitored. Simply asking advice about how worksheets should look or where to store tools can go a long way. These employees are the ones who are going to take these newly created programs and make them into a reality.

Dealing with delays

If there is control over the audit date, ensure there is sufficient time for all the preparations. Despite best efforts, sometimes things don’t go according to plan. Meet with the management team and see if there are ways to make up the time or shuffle resources. It might be unavoidable that an unforeseen delay occurs and a deadline can’t be met.

If there hasn’t been enough time for the proper preparations, consider approaching the customer and asking for more time. It doesn’t set a good precedent to continually push back an audit date, but it might be necessary. This setback is usually a better choice than failing an audit or compromising the safety of your product.

This decision is just one more risk assessment to be done. Consider all the variables and decide if a delay causes more damage than an unsatisfactory audit score. Be transparent about progress to the management team, corporate officers, and applicable customers. A little warning will make a possible delay more palatable.

Borrow with pride

It’s imperative to leverage every asset. Often, new plants have sister plants with mature FSQ systems already in place. Borrowing templates, verbiage, and existing systems are all extremely smart ways to save time when developing these programs for a new site. Remember that borrowed items must be carefully reviewed and tailored for that facility. The type of product, workforce, equipment, customer, and regulatory requirements must all be taken into consideration. The best advice for starting a new facility is to never start from scratch unless that’s the only option.

There is a tremendous amount of resources out there. University extension specialists are a wonderful support option for understanding and complying with applicable governmental regulations. Trade and professional organizations are a well of knowledge and experience that can be tapped. There are also experienced consultants that can aid in almost any step in this process. Their services include creating HACCP (hazard analysis and critical control points) and food safety plans, aiding with practice audits, training staff, and setting up specific programs. Interns or temporary staff can also contribute to creating new programs.

Vendors such as pest control companies, chemical suppliers, and outside laboratories can be a surprising source of aid. They often have already prepared training, and sometimes documentation, that can be easily converted to meet the plant’s needs. They have a vested interest in the plant’s success and will often go to great lengths to offer support. It never hurts to ask.

Simplicity is the key to success

Quality leaders are often perfectionists, driven by the need to meet every requirement to the letter. One of the biggest pitfalls that a new plant can fall into is over-complicating its FSQ Systems. The harsh reality is that there isn’t always going to be enough time to do everything in the beginning. Some items on the list might have to be delayed due to time constraints or unavailable resources.

Producing safe food in a workplace that is safe for every employee is always the starting point. Everything else can be prioritized from there. Making a list of all the key tasks and required documentation and prioritizing it is the best way to ensure that the vital systems are in place. For example, having a statistical process control system in place isn’t going to be as vital to operations as a fully implemented food safety HACCP plan. Determining the time and resources each task will take also needs to be considered in this prioritization planning. Ensure that input is gathered from other departments and members of management.

These first few months will set the tone for how a site develops its food safety culture. It’s important to be meticulous but not too rigid. The best FSQ systems evolve over time but always start with a solid base that is created by prioritizing what is truly important. What has worked at one location might not work at another. If the deadlines are looming, don’t be afraid to recruit aid in the form of colleagues, universities, vendors, or consultants. After the initial audit is complete, ensure that any corrective actions are established for any nonconformances identified. Share the results, not only with those who aided in audit preparations but also all associates at the site. Celebrate the wins and learn from the losses together to build a stronger team for the future.

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About The Author

Wendy White’s picture

Wendy White

Wendy White is a food safety and quality consultant serving manufacturing, distribution, and global supply chains in the food industry for over 17 years. White currently serves on the International Advisory Committee for BRC Global Standards and the Executive Board for Georgia Association of Food Protection.