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Finding the key to successful BRC audits

19 June 2017

David Wolf looks at the common pitfalls encountered by many food businesses when undertaking an audit and offers advice on the steps to take to make sure things run smoothly. 

The British Retail Consortium (BRC) is the leading trade association for UK retailing. Although the BRC food safety standard began in the UK, it is now recognised as a global standard.  There are over 17,000 BRC certified sites worldwide, and a large network of BRC certification bodies in 90 countries. BRC initially developed its Global Standard for Food Safety to help the food industry meet legislative requirements of the EU General Product Safety Directive and the UK Food Safety Act. The BRC Standard provides benefits not only for the retail industry, but also for food manufacturers, importers, ingredient suppliers and the food service industry. 

The BRC’s ability to react to changing food safety concerns, meet customer requirements, and yet provide a simple, easy-to-follow process for manufacturers, has resulted in the Standard becoming one of the most popular third party Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) certification schemes. Updated every three years to reflect changes in thinking or new issues facing the food industry.

BRC version 7 is the latest Standard, covering new areas such as labelling and pack control, and managing suppliers of raw materials. 

As a food manufacturing business, you may already be well versed in BRC audits, how they operate and what to expect. Or you may be thinking about BRC for the first time. Regardless of where you are in the ‘Audit Journey’ there are some basic things to think about and practical steps your business can take to help maximise the chances of attaining the highest grade. Achieving the highest BRC audit grade and maintaining it is an excellent marketing tool, and is worth aiming for. And the secret to this is in the preparation.

When supplying retail, food manufacturers are bombarded with audit requirements. BRC will get you a foot in the door and then there are many other retail-specific audits to undertake, most of which are all asking the same questions. It can be a minefield to manage. In my experience the pitfalls in audits are usually down to human error and a lack of adherence to the procedures set out in the standards. So, effective training across all levels of staff is essential to ensure everyone is ‘singing from the same hymn sheet’. On-going training is also a vital part of a quality culture and food businesses that have this approach integrated into their company ethos are the ones, that in my experience, achieve consistency. Compliance needs to be more than a tick-box exercise.

Opting for unannounced audits means that your business must always be in tip top shape and high standards maintained. Take a step back from the audit process and think about why you are doing it and ask questions about various processes – just because things have been done in a certain way to date doesn’t mean that they must stay that way. This approach will help you to see compliance as more than something you have to do, but a way of working that is key to business success.

Putting this kind of measure in place and questioning why you are doing certain things can ensure that your food business is always at the top of its game. A company-wide food safety culture embraced by everyone from the production line to the boardroom is equally essential; transparency not only helps to achieve BRC excellence but makes a significant contribution to competitive brand advantage. For those questioning on how to promote, ensure or measure whether a quality food safety culture is consistent across their business, the BRC Culture Excellence add on module, provided by Cert ID, may be of interest to investigate when you’re preparing for your audit.    

Preparing for certification 
It goes without saying that obtaining a copy of the standard and reviewing its content is the best starting point. Then select your Certification Body. You should be looking for experienced auditors and in-depth understanding of the food industry. A BRC 5 Star certification body is usually a good indicator that the certification body you have chosen is highly rated and able to provide you with the best service.  

Audit preparation is paramount to successful BRC certification and sites should prepare for the audit with internal audit (self-assessment) or gap analysis against the standard requirements. This will focus on fundamental parts of the standard; ensure you have document evidence for conformances and non-conformances and corrective actions need to be put in place before the on-site.

While pre-audits do not result in certification, you may find that a pre-audit ‘dummy run’ can be beneficial, enabling you to see whether you are ready for the real audit. For companies undergoing their initial audit and who do not currently hold BRC certification, an official BRC audit may be converted to a pre-audit and the actual audit set for a later date to allow more time for preparation. This is also an option for companies who wish to gain the highest grade. Audit duration is site specific but typically is a minimum of 2 days (16 hours).

There are several training courses on offer which look at key areas within a business. Cert ID’s sister company, FoodChain ID Europe, for example,  offers training specifically in line with the requirements of the standard. This can range from HACCP to Internal Auditing plus any specifics relative to a business - for example allergen controls.

Manage your audit-load
It is easy to think that you must be separately audited for the different areas in which your business operates, but combining or simplifying the entire process may make things easier. Certification for gluten-free claims - or FSMA compliance if you export to the USA for example - can easily be added onto the standard BRC audit as a module, meaning far less time spent on individual audits. This can also significantly  reduce the audit cost-burden.

The key to a successful BRC audit is preparation and correct management from the outset. Make sure to horizon scan the key issues that are facing the food industry as a whole and your sector specifically. Undertake gap analysis to find any weak points in the supply chain or in the process and document this with corrective actions. Put training at the top of the agenda and work with a BRC 5 star certification body (check the BRC Directory for official certification body ratings) whose auditors will understand today’s fast changing food business, and will work with you to make sure you are ‘audit ready’ in order to achieve the best results.

David Wolf is EU Certification Manager for BRC 5 Star Certification Body, Cert ID.

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