Experience shows the pros and cons of remote audits

Remote audits should not replace physical visits but can be used as part of a hybrid approach, speakers at the Vienna Food Safety Forum said.

The United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), the Standards Development and Trade Organization (STDF) and the Australian Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry organized the event, which was attended by 400 participants from 65 countries.

Country presentations from Brazil, Cambodia and Indonesia highlighted benefits such as: B. Reduced time and financial costs, the potential of remote audits as a good follow-up tool to help people develop new skills, and better use of human resources.

Negatives were time zone and translation issues, busy and noisy factories, technology issues, the need for standardization of procedures and ICT requirements, longer preparation time and fear of missing out due to lack of sensory cues and inability to read body language.

Audit survey feedback
Annelies Deuss from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) presented the first results of a survey on remote audits with 12 countries.

“Effectiveness is an important factor as countries try to understand and decide whether or not to proceed with remote audits in the future after the initial disruptions of the pandemic are over. We thought there would have been a lot of remote audits before the pandemic, but we found that most were done in response to COVID-19. Before the pandemic, remote audits mostly took place in remote or high-risk locations. We expected a shift towards using big data analytics and artificial intelligence, but we saw that the technology used is quite simple with smartphones and video conferencing platforms,” she said.

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Preliminary findings include the consensus that remote audits are likely to become more efficient over time, Deuss said.

“It is clear that we will see at least an ongoing role for partially remote audits. This means an audit in which the on-site visit is carried out in person, but is informed in advance through a document check. The most important advantage was that the grocery trade could continue despite the pandemic. Added to this were cost savings in travel expenses, more flexibility in processes and personal benefits,” she said.

“On the other hand, the limitations of technology used to visualize places and the lack of sensory input such as taste and smell have been a constant concern. This led to the impression that the quality of the evidence to be collected might not be that high. Many respondents mentioned that the preparation time increased as more documents were shared prior to the audit, and the time taken to assess and review those documents. ICT elements could raise privacy and trade secret issues.”

European experience
Javier Tellechea Vertiz, who handles food audits at the European Commission, said remote audits started in September 2020.

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“The principles of an audit have not changed. They must have clear objectives, an audit plan and pre-audit questionnaire, and clear reporting methods. When we conduct an audit, we ask ourselves three main questions: Is a control system in place? Can this system work? Does it work in practice? We have found that remote audits can answer the first two questions but are limited to answering the third. The answer we sometimes get may not be accurate because we are missing certain elements. This is related to the authority’s openness and trust in the auditors and the process. It’s very difficult to virtually follow an officer delivering the controls, so we decided not to visit operators during a remote audit,” he said.

According to Tellechea Vertiz, challenges included document sharing, internet connectivity, the use of interpreters, staff attention span, ensuring the relevant people are available, and defining when the exam begins.

“We realized from the start that we cannot expect our auditors to work at the same times in a remote meeting as they do on site. Often working seven to eight hours on site, no problem, but in a virtual environment on one screen it’s really difficult to run meetings over four hours. That is why most of our meetings last half a day. We have found that authorities are reluctant to share documents belonging to operators or themselves, due to the security of the sharing platform or other considerations. On the screen, the speed of processing information from documents is much slower. Can we take screenshots of the documents or save data from them?” he said.

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“What is clear is that in a remote audit environment we need to put more emphasis on audit preparation and analysis of the data because you need to prepare for your meetings, they need to be focused or time is wasted. We see, and our auditors tell us, that it takes more time to conduct a remote audit from a human resource perspective. Some of the subjects we cover are better suited to the remote environment, for example visiting a laboratory is more appropriate than visiting a slaughterhouse to see how the officer carries out the checks.”

DG Sante carried out 154 fully remote audits between March 2020 and the end of 2021.

“Since late 2021 we have moved to a mainly hybrid, partially remote, blended approach, where we hold meetings to determine how the system should work and whether it can work, before we travel to the country to check how that is going to work.” system is implemented to answer the third question,” Tellechea Vertiz said.

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