Audits in the food industry: what are the gains of certification management?

3 Minutes

Our health and the environment have become inseparable. Today, we see health as a whole that is linked with environmental factors. A healthy diet plays a critical and growing role. This brings challenges for the food industry as it turns the spotlight on certification, the management of which can be laborious and expensive.

Growing number of audits in the food sector

When food businesses design their processes, they need to consider requirements of various certification systems. Certification is essential for these businesses to gain a foothold in retail. On the other hand, it reliably documents the manufacturing and refinement processes for the consumers. There is a great variety of audits you need to consider. Certificates like IFS Food are primarily designated for quality assurance and food safety. Procedures like HACCP identify potential hazards and critical control points in process management.

The growing number of audits and certification systems is a challenge for the organization of small and regional food business in Germany, involving great effort in terms of costs, documentation, and staffing. The variation and variety of new requirements adds to the complexity in the integration of improvements in existing processes. Moreover, the requirements are changed on a regular basis, and the information acquired across systems needs to be bundled in order to fulfill the benchmarks.

To meet these requirements, businesses are increasingly supported by information management systems that simplify recurring activities in preparation for the audit and enable a structured representation of relevant information. Software providers are also putting more and more certification management systems on the market.

The basics of an audit

Data volume and data quality are decisive if you want to benefit from a certification management tool. For the certifications, you need information on the following areas:

  • processes (e.g., documentation of information flows, workflows, etc.)
  • measures (e.g., key performance indicators from an ERP system or other measures)
  • documents (e.g., files and multimedia content)
  • responsibilities (e.g., organization chart)
  • continual improvement processes (e.g., projects and activities)

Searching and preparing relevant information for audits is time-consuming and cost-intensive, as not only many experts I spoke to confirmed, but as I also experienced myself. Data input is usually decentralized, taking place in many different analog and digital systems. On top of that, we see a trend in the run-up to the audit: data and audit preparation is no longer a temporary task but has become a continual activity. This is due to ever shorter intervals between audits whereas the number of unannounced audits is steadily increasing. An exacting task!

On the plus side, you can uncover a lot of cost reduction potential through the centralized retrieval of data, which is only possible with the integration, connection, or extension of digital data capture. An ERP system provides support in the certification process. Yet, the maintenance of the system can only be handled by the people behind the system. This investment pays off as simplifying the documentation in the daily operational routines leads to efficiency gains.Tomorrow’s certification management

How can we digitalize certification management, beyond centralizing information?

This is my approach: At the basis, you will find a cross-certificate descriptive catalog of requirements with an index referencing the different certificates. Vertically, the quantitative and qualitative test criteria are interconnected with the related single requirements. This is achieved with a quantitative cross-certificate metrics system with associated single variables. You then verify if the value-creation and support processes of all existing software systems and equipment have been considered in an information management system, adding a reference to the original data source. For example, you could use a blockchain as the certificate platform for the central storage of all data. From here, the data could be made available not only for internal access, but also for external users – selectively, and in line with the needs (for example, for end consumers). This creates the transparency for end consumers demanded by the market.

Will this approach, with all the opportunities and risks it entails, be worth the effort? Every business will have to decide this for themselves. In any case, it will be worth considering the collection and preparation of necessary data.