Third-party audits are one component of food safety; just one

The former big cheese at CFIA says the most significant food safety development in the last decade has occurred outside public law — the extraordinary growth in the role of private-sector traceability systems characterized by third-party audits.

Ron Doering, a past president of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency who practices food law in the Ottawa offices of Gowling Lafleur Henderson, LLP, writes in his monthly column for Food in Canada that large processors and retailers are requiring their suppliers to undergo regular inspections by third-party auditors. Producers, ingredient suppliers and processors must no longer simply have their own quality systems and meet government regulations; now they have to sign onerous supplier warranty agreements and open up their businesses to multiple audits. But these systems and their audit schemes have gone through some significant growing pains that have served to seriously undermine their credibility.

Doering says part of the problem seems to be confusion about the role of the auditor.

David Rideout, Canadian food safety expert, SQF auditor and trainer, says,
“Third-party auditors have to identify objective evidence of compliance or non-compliance and understand that they are not doing second-party audits. My job is not to provide guidance and advice to the company; if I do, my manager rejects my audit, as SQF auditors must draw a clear line between third-party (non-consultative) audits and providing advice to the company, which is the role of second-party audits.”

The largest international effort to bring greater rigor and standardization to third-party audit systems is the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI), started 10 years ago, but only with improved training, more rigorous certification and systems that audit the auditors can third-party audits regain the public’s confidence.

And, as food safety expert Doug Powell of Kansas State has said, “Third-party audits are only one performance indicator and need to be supplemented with microbial testing, second-party audits of suppliers, and the in-house capacity to meaningfully assess the results of audits and inspections.”