By Judi Lazaro

I have been working in the food safety industry for over 35 years and I have always heard colleagues, friends, and even customers use the terms "inspector" and "inspection" and "auditor" and "auditing" interchangeably, just as if they were synonymous. But in essence, these two roles and functions are far different, and therefore, it is important you understand the value and scope of each.

Some of the confusion may lie in the fact that both services, inspection, and auditing, are delivered by food safety professionals. However, their respective focus, scope of work, and responsibilities are completely different.

Let’s start with the basics. An inspection is a thorough physical review of a food facility to assess what is happening at a specific moment in time. Inspections are conducted by a food safety professional who is tasked with evaluating the management system of a food or beverage company and will identify positive or negative conditions. While performing an inspection, these inspectors will review your documented processes and facilities. You must be ready to open all the doors, answer questions, climb ladders to review roofs and silos, and get on your knees to look under your equipment, just to name a few examples of what will happen.

Inspectors will discuss findings with you and will teach and coach you on how to correct them as soon as possible so you can continue producing safe food while preparing for your audit. An inspector is, in essence, also a teacher and a mentor.

On the other hand, an audit is a systematic review of things as they are to determine if programs and related activities achieve planned expectations. An auditor is a food safety professional focused on reviewing and challenging your written programs, documentation of activities (records), and corrective actions. Therefore, he/she will be looking at your data over time to see if positive or negative trends are developing. While performing the audit, the food safety professional must hold an impartial opinion about your operations and evaluate your performance. On a GFSI audit, an auditor cannot teach or train you because it is a compliance audit.

Which one do I need: an inspection or an audit?

In the United States, inspections performed by the local regulatory agencies responsible for food safety, such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) are mandatory.

Inspections by third-party companies, such as AIB International, are not mandatory. However, they are a great way to ensure you are following Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs), that you have preventive measures in place to control food safety, and that you are ultimately prepared for a regulatory agency-mandated inspection and your GFSI audit.

The Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) does not provide food safety certification. They recognize several certification programs that meet the GFSI Benchmarking Requirements. Retailers and other buyers around the world trust GFSI-recognized certification as a mark of the highest standards in food safety, allowing food businesses that hold these certificates to access all corners of the global market.

Even if a GFSI audit is not mandatory, large food manufacturers and retailers have adopted these benchmarks and apply them daily. Regardless of where you fit within the food supply chain, if your company wants to conduct business with these big organizations or export your food products, you will most likely need to be certified in one of the currently recognized GFSI benchmarks: BRCGS, FSSC 22000, IFS, or SQF.

What to do

According to the fiscal year 2021 U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Inspection Observation Data, the top five violations that FDA inspectors cited were:

  1. Foreign Supplier Verification Program (FSVP) – failure to develop a FSVP program
  2. Pest control – failure to use measures to maintain a pest free environment
  3. Manufacturing controls – failure to demonstrate the existence of a controlled environment that minimizes the chances of potential microorganism growth, allergen cross-contamination or deterioration of food
  4. Hazard analysis – failure to provide an adequate hazard analysis
  5. Sanitary operations – violations of plant sanitary operations

You can avoid being cited for a violation by adopting basic rules and procedures, including educating every new member of the team on your prerequisite programs, coordinating, and conducting your monthly self-inspection like it was led by a regulatory agency, and using a third-party specialized company to help you identify root causes and corrective actions.

Some additional resources you may find useful:

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