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Today, there is an increasing risk of a shortage of auditors, due to a combination of increase in auditing demand, and more auditors retiring than newcomers joining the profession. Many in the industry have been sounding the alarm for some time now about the growing challenges surrounding this profession – a profession which is at the frontline of food safety verification.

The time to address this is now and it should come as no surprise that a collective coordinated effort is needed to make a measurable and durable impact.

Indeed, it is time for key food actors to work together to address the challenges faced by the industry in attracting, developing and retaining food safety auditors by creating a pathway to professional development and recognition often enjoyed by other professions and that, for too long, has been denied to food safety auditors.

Having been devoted to food safety my entire career, I naturally jumped at the opportunity to contribute to this cause within my role here at The Consumer Goods Forum and its Global Food Safety Initiative.

This work forms part of the larger GFSI Race to the Top Framework (RTTT), which is intended to address the specific challenges in relation to trust and confidence in certification outcomes. More specifically, this work relates to Feature 1 of the RTTT, the work designed to support improvements in food safety auditor competence and ongoing continuing professional development. This feature enables the development and implementation of a new GFSI recognition programme for professional bodies verifying food safety auditor competence.

I recently invited four specialists to join me on a webinar to discuss the work GFSI has launched in this area and the new approach we have worked to develop over the past 18 months to improve and secure trust in third-party certification.

I spoke with Vincent Desmond, Chief Executive of the Chartered Quality Institute (UK), Andrew Baines, President and CEO, Exemplar Global (Australia), LeAnn Chuboff, Vice President, Technical Affairs, Safe Quality Food Institute (USA) and Kris Middleton, North American Food Program Manager, Bureau Veritas Certification North America (USA).

We discussed the availability of food safety auditors, as well as the challenge of retaining auditors in the profession. GFSI has set out to introduce the concept of professional bodies into our ecosystem. These are organisations which exist in other industries and are here to support professionals in maintaining and developing their competence, giving better recognition to that profession but also easing out threats to the profession. GFSI decided to create a recognition programme for professional recognition bodies who will be registering food safety auditors.

I invited Andrew to explain what a professional recognition body is and give the example of the non-profit organisation Exemplar Global, which he leads. He outlined the three tasks behind their constitution: to certify people – primarily auditors and engineers, to certify organisations that train those people, and to encourage ongoing professional development for those people.

Andrew stressed the importance of providing ongoing professional development, a community for auditors, as well as a variety of opportunities for auditors to build their skills through events, publications and other resources. This is an exciting and challenging career path for which continued development is critical, so we need to find ways to make it accessible and affordable for that to happen.

Vince shared his concerns around the lack of esteem sometimes experienced by professional assessors and discussed some points to raise the status of this work and make it a more aspirational career choice.

I took the opportunity to explain that by moving from validation of a CV to validation of competence, we would be able to bring in people from broader career backgrounds to the profession. Building on that win, we must then ensure that continued professional development is available as a way of augmenting the retention of auditors. This also helps by supporting these professionals on their career path and ensuring that they are able to face evolving food safety and auditing challenges and best practice.

Andrew agreed and pointed out that things are always changing in this career. There will always be new standards, new technologies, and now new challenges around remote auditing. It is imperative to keep up to date. It is important that opportunities and resources are provided for growth and professional development.

Vince applauded the move to competence-based validation, as it also eases entry into the profession. He highlighted that this is the general trend in most professional bodies. After acquiring the knowledge, a competence assessment is important to see how successfully that knowledge can be applied. Rather than focusing on training hours, the focus should be on demonstrating skills and personal responsibility.

As excited as I am about the benefits this overall shift could create, I am mindful that this will only generate results if the whole system works together. I asked LeAnn to share her experience and learnings from working with Professional Bodies, as this is a model SQFI has applied for many years.

LeAnn answered that there is a set of criteria that is required for all auditors such as passive training, minimum audit hours, education, experience. Beyond that, the Certification Bodies (CBs) have their own hiring practices to check for the soft skills that cannot be checked in an application review. Rather than doing this in-house, they relied on the independent assessment of a PRB, which in their experience ensures neutrality and consistency.

I then turned to Kris to share his experience as a Certification Body of working with that SQF model and the values brought to him. Once he knows that an auditor is registered with a PRB, what is left for him to do?

Kris shared that this system has made things easier by providing one point of contact for any issues that may arise, such as validating the accuracy of data. It also allows for a consistent playing field across all CBs and has been easy to use.

It was very helpful to receive questions from the audience as well, and I’m really grateful to all those who sent in their comments throughout the webinar, as well as all of you who participated in the consultation as this is one of the key ways we can collect your feedback.

The top question we received is around transitional arrangements and next steps, which is precisely the topic of the stakeholder consultation we will be opening on 28th October. I invite you to read and participate in this consultation which will run for four weeks.

Another question we received was around the outcomes of the first ATPD consultation and if it had resulted in any changes to the requirements. To that end, I’m happy to share two resources that constitute our response to the consultation and show how we implemented the feedback we received from it. The first is a podcast I recorded which you can listen to here. The second asset is the summary of changes which you can read here. I am also delighted to announce that the GFSI Benchmarking Requirements for ATPD will be launched at the beginning of November this year.

It was a pleasure to have this important conversation with LeAnn, Vincent, Andrew and Kris and it is an honour to be spearheading this critical work at GFSI alongside industry experts. We call on all relevant stakeholders to signal their support and help us change perceptions on what it means to be a food safety auditor.

I firmly believe being a food safety auditor should be both accessible and rewarding and I encourage you to participate in any way that you are able – whether that be participating in the consultations, preparing to apply for benchmarking as PRB, adopting these tools as an auditor, or simply helping out by spreading the word!

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