Operating a meat or poultry production facility without utilizing third-party, food-safety audits is similar to walking a high wire without a safety net below. Third-party audits play a critical role in enhancing food-safety production facilities. Trained, competent outside auditors can view a process with objectivity that is otherwise difficult to achieve, explains Dr. James Marsden, Regent’s Distinguished Professor of Food Safety and Security, Kansas State Univ., associate director of the Biosecurity Research Institute and North American Meat Processors Association senior science advisor.

“Auditors see problems that may be missed by company employees,” he adds. “Third-party audits are recognized by customers, including retailers and restaurants, among others.”

In recent decades, maintaining and enhancing food safety has become far more critical for packers and processors. Springdale, Ark.-based Tyson Foods Inc. augments its own in-house food-safety audits at plants with third-party auditors, says Rick Roop, Tyson’s senior vice president of food safety and quality assurance. “Third-party auditors offer experience, unbiased reviews with competitor plants and plants that produce products other than meat as part of that experience,” he adds.

Providing the safest supply chain possible is one of Tyson’s core business practices and its customers recognize this, he says.

Tyson doesn’t plan to conduct more third-party, food-safety audits at its plants in the future because it is actively engaged in the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI), which benchmarks a number of excellent audits.

“As the name implies, these audits are reviewed by experts around the world and then are executed by qualified certification bodies, such as FSNS [Food Safety Net Services].” Roop says. “The GFSI motto of ‘Certified Once, Accepted Everywhere’ outlines our objective to consolidate numerous audits at our facilities into a single annual audit that genuinely reflects the policies and programs in place at a facility, thereby giving our team members more time to execute our food-safety programs.”

Third-party perspective
Food Safety Net Services (FSNS) is receiving more interest from its clients and potential clients in the US meat and poultry industry to conduct food-safety audits. FSNS is a network of ISO/IEC 17025:2005 accredited laboratories that provide a range of microbiological testing and chemical analysis. It also offers auditing and consulting services that synergistically improve the effectiveness of food safety and quality programs, according to the San Antonio-based company.

Requests and interest are coming from a variety of sources, explains Lori Ernst, director of auditing. Many requests are generated by customer requirements, such as requiring facilities to be GFSI-certified and wanting the assurance that products purchased from these facilities are safe and wholesome, she adds. Consumer awareness also has influenced the demand for auditing.

Plant operators have demonstrated a proactive approach to food safety and are choosing to use audits as a tool, Ernst says. Audits are being requested to assure continuous growth for smaller companies.

FSNS conducts various types of food-safety audits for the meat and poultry industry. GFSI audits are common and have taken the place of traditional food-safety/GMP (Good Manufacturing Practices) audits. “GFSI audits are much more in-depth and require solid programs that must be managed throughout the year,” Ernst says. “Animal-welfare audits are conducted at all slaughter facilities. Companies that have put the animal-welfare guidelines into practice have performed well. We see very few issues regarding animal welfare. The same can be said for food-safety audits with minimal issues that would impact the safety of the products being produced.”

There are many benefits to meat and poultry companies employing third-party, food-safety audits. Continual growth and meeting customer requirements are two of the largest, Ernst says. Auditors see many facilities and see many of best practices across the country. Even if the company meets the requirements, FSNS often points out areas that can be improved or practices that need more attention. This aids the company in prioritizing areas for improvement that will make a company’s programs and practices stronger.

FSNS sees many positive signs when auditing meat and poultry companies. “The biggest trend is the openness in which audits are received and requirements toward food safety are implemented,” Ernst says. “We have found companies want to improve and be the best they can be. Attitudes have changed over the past several years and food safety is at the top of the list.”

Another trend is companies are investing in technology and equipment that aid in improving food safety.

Despite criticism against industry regarding food safety from activists and special interest groups, meat and poultry companies are leading the country in food safety, Ernst says. Although FSNS performs audits outside the industry, as a rule – meat and poultry plants are leading other industries with regard to food-safety awareness and implementation.

“One area we see as an area of continual improvement is documentation,” she adds. “When auditing, if it is not documented – it did not happen. Companies often perform the required task, but documenting that the task was completed at the frequency required is sometimes missing.”

Most meat and poultry companies are being audited by a third party, Ernst says. Those that are not will eventually need to be if they expand their customer base to any company that requires a third-party audit, she adds.

Being audited by a third party helps companies stay competitive in a competitive market, Ernst points out. “It is one more tool to present when trying to gain new customers,” she adds. “Customers of meat and poultry companies assume a risk if the practices and conditions of their supplier have not been assessed. Third-party auditors provide the assessment objectively since there is no biased interest toward either the customer or the company.”

Ernst says FSNS performs audits for several large meat and poultry companies in the US. “Overall, they have performed at a high level,” she adds. “Small packers and processors have also done fairly well even with fewer resources.”