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From: Food Quality & Safety magazine, June/July 2007

Effective Audits Not Just for the Big Boys

How Smaller Companies Can Create a Reporting System to Identify Trends and Double Productivity

by Debe Nagy-Nero, RD

Success stories abound about quality assurance, food safety and sanitation at major companies like Jack in the Box, Tyson, General Mills and Darden.

Smaller companies or departments focused on food service or manufacturing may think that having the latest technology to support quality assurance, safety and sanitation programs is out of the question.

When I started as director of food safety at The Holland Inc., a restaurant concept company in the Pacific Northwest, I thought my department wouldn’t have the time, workforce, money or support from higher-ups to develop or purchase an electronic data collection and reporting solution.

I was wrong.

You are never too small to have some type of auditing and data collection program to help identify problems. What system you choose and how effective it is is the question.

Upon joining The Holland Inc., I found they were using an eight-page checklist developed as a Microsoft Word document. I fine-tuned it into a 12-page form. The only information that could be compiled from it was the total score. The total scores for all restaurants in the company were then entered into a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet.

Compiling other data, such as most frequent items marked, required going through all 12 pages for 39 restaurants. This didn’t happen very frequently. Because all of the audits were done by the same person, what was in that person’s memory was how some items were prioritized. Memory was not quantifiable, especially when it came to needing to write business plans and return on investments (ROIs). Paper was only effective to a point.

I started to investigate ways to make my work easier and more cost effective. At conferences I asked what the “big guys” were doing. I talked to vendors and searched online.

I found electronic data-collection and reporting systems as well as third-party auditing companies with data-collection systems. Most of the options I found appeared to be cost-prohibitive for our small company. I also asked IT what they were paying for the other back-of-the-house software we had.

After a couple of years, it was clear the cost of food safety and sanitation to the company would be huge if I didn’t get a better system. I knew I wanted to identify problems faster at individual restaurants and companywide.

I became most comfortable with Steton’s data collection and reporting solution. One of every four leading food-service chains uses Steton, based in St. George, Utah. They took my 12-page form and converted it to an electronic form available on my hand-held computer.

The results were immediate. The amount of time to audit a restaurant, get the score and give the restaurant feedback was cut in half. I also have all the results from each audit at my fingertips to formulate multiple reports. I can drill down and view more exact data on certain areas of the restaurants or view everything as a whole.

After a year of using the technology, we began having our restaurants perform monthly self-inspections with Steton’s software. Previously, they had used paper to manage inspections — not the most effective way to measure results. With data collected by our internal team, along with the self-inspection data, it didn’t take long before we could readily identify trends and take appropriate action. I quickly recognized that our ability to manage our food safety program proactively provided us with a significant return on investment.

How do you start putting together a food-safety program if you don’t even have an audit form? Start by going around your restaurant or small food business and list all of your equipment. Your maintenance team may already have such a list.

For restaurants, look at your local health department inspection form. Look at the FDA Food Code and state food codes. Use a HACCP plan to find the critical areas you need to keep track of. Determine if you want to collect this information yourself or have someone else do it, and how often. Determine the outcome of the auditing process and who will receive the information. If you are a small company like ours, it will probably be the quality assurance or food-safety person or team. Determine the value of paper reports versus having your collected data instantly accessible and ready for analysis.

Ultimately, large and small food-service companies should realize these benefits from auditing systems:

  • Increased awareness of sanitation and food safety;
  • Assurance that a HACCP plan is effective;
  • Ability to show due diligence in the case of suspected quality or safety incidents;
  • Acquisition of hard evidence to change policies or procedures when necessary;
  • In some health jurisdictions, a lesser license fee for having a self-inspection program; and
  • Having a great training tool for staff.

How does adding technology to manage your auditing and reporting make a difference? In a nutshell, it makes all intended benefits of your audits a reality. Instant access to real-time data, the ability to generate trend reports on the fly and the ability to monitor corrective actions to completion are critical for effective auditing.

The right technology facilitates the productivity of departments managing quality assurance and food safety even if there are staffing constraints. The ability to double productivity while making work easier and being more results-oriented cannot be ignored.

How do you know how your company is doing in relation to federal, state, industry and corporate standards if there are no data that can be easily analyzed? Be proactive. If you are not pursuing the latest advancement for auditing food safety, you cannot be doing your job effectively.

Debe Nagy-Nero, registered dietitian, is the director of quality assurance, nutrition and safety for The Holland Inc. The Holland Inc. operates Burgerville and Beaches’ concepts in the Pacific Northwest. Contact Debe by calling 360-694-1521 or e-mailing deben@thehollandinc.com. For information about Steton’s software, contact Mark Beatty at 435.627.5094 or mark.beatty@steton.com.

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