This piece was authored by Donald R. Brewer, III, Food Safety Professional, AIB International and originally featured by the Global Food Safety Resource.
Throughout the past few months of the COVID-19 pandemic, food manufacturers have been pulling double duty to ensure a safe food supply chain, while also prioritizing the health and safety of their food manufacturing teams. For some, this has meant significant changes to their operations to increase distancing between employees and provide them with additional PPE. Others have incorporated health screening measures like temperature monitoring and travel questionnaires.
As food manufacturers now work to transition to some semblance of “normal,” one constant has been the need for GMP audits to maintain assurances of food safety standards being upheld.
GMP audits ensure the safety of food being produced across the supply chain. Completing a GMP audit during these times comes with its own unique challenges, one of which is the limited availability of qualified personnel to facilitate on-site inspections. Some work arounds to allow these audits to continue during these extraordinary times have been set forward by organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO), which recommend that any inspectors who visit food manufacturing facilities are in good health. In some instances, these measures can delay the audit process or make some auditors inconsistently available.
As a result, qualified auditors may be thrust into new and unfamiliar roles, inspecting equipment or reviewing documents that they wouldn’t typically. Each of these has the potential to slow or negatively impact the auditing process.
An in-depth inspection can also be a challenge. Pre-pandemic, food manufacturers would allow doors and hatches on food-holding equipment to be opened and inspected. Today, some manufacturers are hesitant to allow this practice due to the potential of exposing employees to the virus. Another challenge is the missed training opportunities as there is a lack of on-site personnel at manufacturing facilities during audits due to the need for social distancing. Though it is an obstacle, it can be overcome by the auditor taking detailed notes and then scheduling additional time following the physical inspection to dialogue about the training opportunities found.
One way to avoid many of these pandemic-related challenges and delays is to perform a remote audit like a Hybrid GMP Inspection. This type of audit combines a virtual policy and document review, followed by a physical inspection to be performed within six months of the virtual review. This allows the facility the flexibility to conduct a portion of the audit now and meet necessary regulations, while limiting their facility’s exposure to additional off-site visitors.
Another option is the virtual HACCP Verification audit. Previously, this would have been conducted by having a client submit their program and pertinent documentation via email or during an on-site visit. The availability of a virtual offering allows clients greater flexibility in being able to have the program and documentation reviewed in real-time through video conferencing. This affords both parties the opportunity to discuss and resolve potential issues right away, while also maintaining social distancing protocols and limiting potential virus exposure to the facility’s workforce.
While these are uncertain times, solutions are continuously being developed to ensure the safety of the food supply chain. It is also integral to be developing solutions to support the health and safety of the people involved in food manufacturing.