The third annual TraceGains’ FSQA professional survey has come to a close and reveals critical insights into the current priorities, challenges, and overall status of FSQA professionals in the United States.The online survey was conducted 1/11/2016-2/29/2016, with a total of 498 food industry professionals participating. Among participants, 77 percent identified themselves as Food Safety or Quality Assurance professionals, with the remainder in regulatory/compliance, research and development, supply chain, operations, and purchasing.
FSMA Compliance - Leading Priority
Not surprisingly, FSMA (Food Safety Modernization Act) compliance ranked as the top priority among participants, taking the lead over audit readiness. Last year was a big year for FSMA, with several final rules announced and an official roll out plan communicated to the industry. These final rules have prompted analysis and evaluation of processes and regulations to ensure compliance, and most of those necessary actions will need to occur in 2016 to meet regulatory deadlines.
- Preventive Controls for Human Food Regulation
- Foreign Supplier Verification Programs (FSVP)
- Mitigation Strategies to Protect Food Against Intentional Adulteration
- Sanitary Food Transportation
- Third-Party Accreditation of Auditors
- Produce Safety
- Preventive Controls for Animal Food Regulation (Animal Feed)
As anyone in the industry will vouch, preparing for compliance is no small feat. And depending on the type of actions a business conducts (e.g., coordinating with foreign suppliers), there may be varying levels of compliance needs and new or updated processes put in place.
Interestingly, FSMA compliance and audit readiness were also very close in priority weighting in 2015, with 32 percent noting audit readiness and 28 percent highlighting FSMA compliance as their respective top priorities. In 2016, those roles were reversed with FSMA compliance taking the lead with 45 percent and audit readiness following with 15percent, representing a greater margin between the two top priorities.
Other priorities in 2016 include GFSI (Global Food Safety Initiative) certification (11%), quality management (11%), process improvement (8%), and supplier relationship management (7%).
Training and Staffing Remain Top Challenges
Training and staffing (42%) remain top challenges in 2016 , which may be due to the increased level of scrutiny and regulatory oversight, as well as the acute level of detail that food industry professionals must continually maintain. Furthermore, participants identified FSMA (15%) and Executive Support (13%) as additional top challenges immediately below training and staffing, which underscores the importance of achieving FSMA compliance measures with appropriate support at all levels.
So why is it so difficult to onboard, train, and retain qualified FSQA professionals? According to survey participants, the problem lies in the lack of availability of appropriate training and professional development opportunities (31%), adequate pay and benefits (29%), and an overall lack of support from leadership to simplify processes by adopting technology solutions to automate processes (27%) and develop and maintain a positive workplace culture (25%).
In fact, 56 percent of participants still do not automate supplier, compliance, and regulatory documents and/or maintain digital records for process improvement and supplier relationship management, which is consistent with reports from 2015. Therefore, although the industry is aware of and asking for automation to help simplify processes and retain qualified professionals, there is still a gap in fulfilling this need. Unfortunately, budgetary constraints are listed as the primary cause for the lack of automation, despite the reported benefits.
Automating and digitizing supplier documents is proven to improve business processes by increasing transparency across departments, thereby providing one source of truth; improving audit readiness and decreasing preparation time needed; improving supplier relationships and overall compliance, streamlining business processes, and reducing time-to-market.
Most participants acknowledged the struggle and indicated an understanding of the constraints their companies face including small company size, budgetary constraints, and increased learning curves to onboard new professionals who lack the knowledge at the onset of employment. Facility locations (e.g., rural setting, minimal diversity) were also cited as potential barriers.
Looking Toward the Future: 2016 Predictions
What does the future hold for the food industry and FSQA professionals? Survey participants weighed in on this very question. The overarching theme for 2016 is a focus on regulations, compliance, improved food safety, and automation. This is going to be a busy year for everyone involved.
Many participants commented that the increased regulations imposed on the industry and compliance demands will raise the bar for food safety for not only the food industry and government bodies, but also the consumer. FSQA professionals foresee regulations and oversight becoming stricter and more stringent, which supports the top priorities that these participants identified—FSMA compliance and audit readiness.
Interestingly, some participants expressed that government agencies lack the manpower to properly enforce these strict rulings, causing a lot of undue confusion and inconsistencies. Federal audits already take place on a regular basis throughout the year. Will they need to increase to identify issues and enforce penalties?
Inevitably, the industry must first experience growing pains as companies update processes and strive to meet federally imposed deadlines. Some companies may stumble, thereby potentially increasing the likelihood of details falling through the cracks and causing food recalls or other adverse situations. These stumbles or mistakes can occur at any time during a company’s lifecycle, but with the added pressure and scrutiny of looming FSMA rules and other regulations, many FSQA professionals believe they will be magnified.
The silver lining or glimmer of hope to all of this, however, is that there is a strong belief that once companies make their necessary changes and professionals grow accustomed to the changes, the end result will be a significant improvement. Participants believe there will be a positive impact on the industry and the food produced/distributed overall.
One important step toward ensuring these new processes are successful and minimize human error is through automation. Many participants highlighted that the demand for automated document management will increase as the need for transparency and efficiency also increases. Manual processes are not only labor- and time-intensive, they are riddled with potential errors. As humans, we have the best of intentions, but we can’t possibly catch everything or see everything. And that’s where automation comes in. Leveraging automation, FSQA professionals can minimize or even eliminate errors in current and new processes; thus epitomizing the phrase: work smarter, not harder. And in 2016, FSQA professionals want and need to do just that.
Overall, FSQA professionals are bracing themselves for some major changes in the industry. There is an increased focus on and demand for improved processes and automation to ensure compliance and streamlined workflows.
What are your predictions? Do you agree or disagree with the priorities, challenges, and predictions for the future?
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