Too many food safety audits spoil the broth

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Brc, Audit, Financial audit

Too many food safety audits spoil the broth
As the BRC starts work on version six of its Global Food Safety Standard, leading UK own-label manufacturers have continued to question its relevance as the supermarkets have carried on – and in many cases stepped up – their own auditing activities with suppliers.

The BRC standard, which was designed to avoid unnecessary duplication by enabling suppliers to be audited by third parties against a single, consistent standard accepted by all of their major customers, has grown significantly over the last decade, and is now adopted by more than 12,000 sites in 96 countries.

However, in the UK at least, it has not completely replaced retailer audits, and many food manufacturers are still being audited by several customers as well.

One technical manager contacted by FoodManufacture.co.uk said: "It's getting ridiculous. You can spend three quarters of your week dealing with or preparing for audits sometimes. There has been a definite increase over the last five years, particularly of unannounced retailer audits."

Another technical manager said he could “not remember the last time a retailer technical manager asked me about a non-conformance from a BRC audit”.

He added: “Let's be absolutely honest. The retailers have no interest in the BRC standard as it is just not of the level they require. They are not interested and do not see it as adding value. Retailers have had to draw up their own standards because the BRC wasn't delivering what they wanted.

“Look at M&S. They never valued it from day one and never will because it does not meet their stringent requirements. My prediction is that given time BRC will disappear unless it reinvents itself.”

Some supermarkets were also becoming adept at using their audits to gain leverage in commercial discussions with suppliers, he claimed. “There have been several instances where a retailer has had a visit from a supplier to discuss price increases. And the next day they get an unannounced audit from that customer, which surprise surprise, picks up a major issue….”

Inconsistent auditing?

As for the BRC standard, most technical managers contacted by FoodManufacture.co.uk said the biggest issue was not the standard per se, but the rigour and consistency of the auditing process.

One interim manager said: “We had our BRC audit last week and got an A grade. We were audited to the book but in my view the auditor missed lots of things that a Marks & Spencer PPC or Tesco PIU audit would have ripped us apart on.

“If the BRC is to gain respect again in the industry then it has to address the quality of the auditors and consistency of approach before anything else. If they can do this then things should fall into place. If they don't change then it continues as a tick box exercise.”

Another added: “The BRC audits do not reach the real areas of problems to sites such as foreign body control, microbiological issues, hygiene standards and customer complaints. These are the focus areas I am seeing from many customer audits now.”

Some of the variation could be addressed through better auditor training, added one technical director, but it could also be tackled by making the standard itself clearer, so that fewer things were left to interpretation by the individual auditors.

Better training

Speaking to FoodManufacture.co.uk earlier this year, BRC director of Global Standards Dr Geoff Spriegel said consistent auditing and training were critical in maintaining the credibility of any standard.

“The point is not to compete on the content of standards, but in the framework for ensuring compliance with them through consistent auditing and training.

“We've put a lot of effort into working with certification bodies on key performance indicators and training to ensure everyone has confidence in the way BRC standards are audited."

Version six

It was too early to say what v6 of the BRC standard - due out for consultation early next year - would look like, said BRC senior technical services manager David Brackston.

But his instinct was that there would not be any significant changes. The focus would most likely be on the “protocols by which the standard is audited and managed”​, he predicted.

“We’ve not even started the rewrite yet, but my gut feeling is that the standard is not a million miles away from where it needs to be.”

The BRC plans to consult on a draft of v6 early next year and will publish the revised version in summer/autumn 2011, he said. It will then be effective for audits from early 2012.

Related topics: Food Safety

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3 comments

BRC is a bit like democracy, a poor system, but the only real solution

Posted by Tom Brightmore,

I go back to the time before BRC when I would spend most of my time servicing audits from all the major retailers, caterers and intermediate manufacturers plus doing the same myself on all our suppliers. BRC (and other GFSI standards) have helped immeasurably with this and have done away with most of the basic duplication.

Yes, retailers are supplementing the audits and independent quality consultants hired by medium-sized distributors etc are understandably advising their customers that they should pay them for independent audits rather than accept BRC, but the basic standard is still the goal we must all strive for.

Any standard which gets such universal acceptance as BRC will have unscrupulous rogues who will give an A grade for cash, but we must persevere and give support to a universal standard rather than abandon it as soon as the going gets tough.

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There is nothing wrong with the standard itself. But consistent auditing is required.

Posted by Tony Connor,

There is nothing wrong with the BRC standard, it is clear and prescriptive, unlike say, ISO 22000. The problem is ensuring that the application of the standard is audited effectively. A couple of weeks auditor training does not make a good auditor!

As regards the statement... "We had our BRC audit last week and got an A grade. We were audited to the book but in my view the auditor missed lots of things that a Marks & Spencer PPC or Tesco PIU audit would have ripped us apart on."
Then I suggest you get these sorted out PDQ.

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A very sensible article

Posted by Esther Vázquez,

A very good article! In fact, I will use it as a support when I have to give my opinion regarding all this mess about auditing and specially about BRC.

The commentators are totally right in my opinion.Those audits rarely can add value to food safety issues. In my opinion, the major problem falls on the standard per se ( or its interpretation by auditors) and on auditor training/ professional experience ( I do not mean BRC knowledge).

I would like to share something that happened to me in a recent audit. To sum up, my conclusion after that was: for BRC there is no risk analysis to be done but you have to do all what a requirement states (or the interpretation by the auditor).This can lead to have the same consideration for a big production plant ( 5,000 units/hour) than for a small plant (400/day) for example. Again, it is ridiculous. And another example. How is it possible that an auditor can assure that a point is not a PCC without asking anything else? This is real, it happens to me recently!

As a consultant, as a quality manager in a food company and as a person who passed the BRC audit I can say that most of the time this auditing process is ridiculous and unuseful! A waste of money and waste of time. In my case, I would add a waste of health by listening to silly arguments during an audit.

It is a pity that this is happening to food industries. At least, big companies are starting to say in a loud voice what they think.

On the other hand, in order to make auditing effective I think audits by the custumer and unnounced audits are the best way.

Very sensible article!

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