Your food safety audit is coming up. Your stress levels are rising. You have to find the paperwork. Are you properly prepared?
Millions of managers involved in food retail will know the feeling.
Food safety audit requirements vary depending on your location, the nature of your food service activity and whether the audit is coordinated by internal, third-party or regulatory personnel. It could be an unscheduled spot-check or a full inspection.
It pays to be prepared. But busy schedules, staff shortages and urgent customer demands can all get in the way, creating stress when the moment arrives. That's especially true if you're piecing together paperwork at the eleventh hour. It's not uncommon to find gaps and anomalies, which increase the risk of failure.
The costs of food safety failure stretch from regulatory fines to brand damage, loss of customers, low morale and poorer supply chain relationships.
As the world emerges from lockdown conditions, food safety inspections that were put on hold are resuming with increasing intensity.
Now is the time for managers to make their food business audit-ready with robust policies and reporting. Here are five key actions to focus on.
1. Go paperless for a smoother food safety audit
Paper-based checklists have been used to distribute policies for decades but the tide is turning. There's a growing acceptance of the problems with paperwork. It is time-consuming, vulnerable to inaccuracy and difficult to analyse. In a busy environment, paperwork is easily lost or damaged.
Whether it is manually noting down temperature readings or confirming the completion of frequent cleaning tasks, paper checklists take up a large amount of staff time. Also, the bigger the premises, the greater the number of checks required.
All of this reduces productivity and pushes up costs. A modern approach is to embrace automated monitoring of environmental factors like temperature and humidity, and adopt digital assistants that prompt, guide and capture the activity of your staff. You can dramatically reduce the time required for monitoring, while guaranteeing safety and providing complete digital traceability.
2. Create a digital food safety audit trail
One of the additional problems with paper-based checklists is that, once completed, results often have to be manually entered into a PC, logged on a spreadsheet or stored in a filing cabinet. The sheer volume of checks carried out means that trying to find the right information quickly is extremely difficult, adding to management overheads and making it difficult to satisfy requests for near-instant reports.
Digital technology uses cloud-based reporting so the results of monitoring are available through a single dashboard, with the ability to drill down to find out specific details for any given period and provide reports with a single click. Analysis can uncover best practice or highlight areas of weakness to address with highly targeted training.
3. Adopt automated temperature monitoring
Ensuring the correct temperatures of chilled storage and display units, as well as freezers, is fundamental to food safety. Foods stored beyond their temperature range - usually a maximum of 5C for chilled foods - are vulnerable to harmful bacteria growth. This is a clear hazard to customer health and can additionally lead to the disposal of valuable stock. Monitoring protocols have to be in place to ensure temperatures stay within safe limits.
The outdated procedure of asking staff to walk around premises checking fridge and freezer temperatures at regular intervals is at odds with the digital world in which we now operate. By using wireless sensors, temperature readings and humidity levels can be recorded automatically around the clock. There’s no need to dispatch employees with clipboards or measuring equipment, meaning they can be re-assigned to higher value duties. Automated monitoring also delivers results on a continuous basis, rather than at infrequent intervals, giving a more accurate, detailed and up-to-date picture of what is happening within your premises. Alarm notifications ensure staff are alerted as soon as there is any variation beyond set parameters so stock can be moved and faults addressed promptly.
Similar scrutiny must be applied to hot-hold foods. Consumers' appetite for convenience means more premises - whether they are supermarkets, service stations, coffee outlets or convenience stores - are offering hot food-to-go. However, once heated, foods have to be kept at a consistent temperature, and for only a limited period of time. In the UK, the Food Standards Agency stipulates that hot food must be kept at 63C or above, and thrown out if it has been on display more than two hours.
Specialist hot-hold sensors can take care of monitoring without causing any stress to staff. One large retailer has applied digital insight to the preparation of hot food-to-go, based on the shorter shelf-life of these products. Cooking schedules are mapped against demand patterns to ensure the right product availability while minimising food waste. As well as ensuring compliance, this retailer has made efficiency gains.
4. Ensure best practice ahead of your food safety audit
Safer food standards depend on procedures being carried out exactly as specified, ideally with evidence to demonstrate compliance. However, the application of standards can vary between sites. Training employees on this range of activities is time-consuming, particularly when there is high staff turnover across multiple locations.
Guidance on food safety inspections and enforcement for the UK is published by the Food Standards Agency, as well as local authorities. In the US, the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provide important food safety information.
These guidelines define the processes, monitoring requirements and reporting criteria that food retail businesses should align with.
Conventional pen-and-paper checklists are cumbersome, easily overlooked in busy periods and make measurement difficult. There’s also the challenge of distributing new instructions to all staff whenever requirements or procedures are updated – for example, with the introduction of new food safety measures.
Adopting a digital approach means guidance is delivered directly to employees via a mobile app which bleeps to prompt activity at the appropriate time, provides step-by-step instructions and captures details automatically for reporting purposes. Guided digital assistants can support a span of typical food safety activity, from cleaning surfaces to stock checks, acceptance of deliveries, food preparation, opening and closing procedures. Giving staff on-the-spot guidance reduces the need for formal training and refresher courses, speeding up the process of onboarding.
5. Take preventative action
Even the best-run food business, problems can occur. One of the UK’s largest supermarkets, Tesco was fined £7.56m in April for a series of 22 out-of-date food offences at three stores between 2016 and 2017. It was the highest food safety fine in the country’s history.
Managers need real-time visibility of daily operations to instil consistent standards and behaviours across all locations and identify issues that can be rectified in advance of any inspection.
With more rigorous monitoring and analysis of frontline adherence to processes, problems can be foreseen and even prevented. For example, if you are able to monitor freezer temperatures on a continuous basis, rather than just at the beginning of a shift, you can set alerts if readings are near to going outside of set parameters and take preventative action. Equally, automated monitoring provides immediate alerts if doors are left open, giving time to respond before food is spoiled and has to be discarded. Insight into frontline activity can also highlight procedural weaknesses – without requiring a regular schedule of in-person visits. In today’s fast-moving environment, there are major competitive advantages in being able to address specific training needs and roll out updated guidance.
In increasingly complex supply chains, the frequency, range and requirements of food safety audits are only going to increase. Switching to digital technology is therefore crucial if food retailers are to deliver the right reports in a timely manner – and safeguard their reputation going forward.