Food safety

Revelations of a South African food safety auditor

Fifteen years ago I landed a job as a food safety auditor with an international auditing body. Last year I hung up my boots to pursue other avenues in food safety. During this time, I saw well over 1 500 food factories and learnt a great deal about food safety, best practices and dealing with people. I also saw the dirty food safety underbelly of the industry…. Valuable insights from Rolf Uys, well known SA food safety expert.

I am now in a position to reflect back on this career and reveal the actual things I have seen over the years. The idea is not to name and shame. Where and at which factory the issues were noted, will remain unsaid.

More important is to reflect on why and how these things happen and to highlight lessons that can be learnt.

My top 10 worst findings seen (inside production areas) in South African food factories are:

  1. Faeces behind an electrical panel.
  2. Urination inside food factories.
  3. Drugs (dagga, tik and hypodermic needles) stashed behind structures and equipment.
  4. Fly maggots, mould and fermentation in product zones.
  5. Insect infestation in flour silos and flour trucks.
  6. Live rats/mice in production areas, dead rats in equipment. Rodent droppings on raw materials.
  7. Non-conforming product that had failed micro counts being sold at the back door for a discount.
  8. Cockroach infestation. Cockroaches crawling over food-handling equipment.
  9. Operator picking up product that had fell on the floor and re-placing it on the line.
  10. Bypassing critical control points (metal detectors, sieves, pasteurizers) to increase production.


There are off course many more to add to the list and mostly centered around deep cleaning of equipment and discipline of personnel. It should also be pointed out that these were not first time audits of small backyard operations. Most were large, well known food manufacturers with numerous food safety certificates.

Unfortunately, if one knows where to look, the food industry is not a very hygienic place. To add more perspective, here’s a list of the items that food factories failed on most:

  • Live birds inside food facilities
  • Actual foreign object contamination of products noted (for example strings, conveyors, rubber, metal-to- metal contact etc)
  • Toxic rodent bait used irresponsibly inside food-handling areas
  • HACCP plan not followed. What the HACCP plan states and what actually happens, does not correspond.
  • Insects in product zones.
  • Colour code violations. The cleaning utensil or allergen colour coding system not being followed.
  • Raw materials, work- in-progress, rework or waste being mislabelled or not labelled at all.
  • Falsifying of records.
  • Cleaning program not effective.
  • Internal audit/ self-inspection program not effective.

Questions arise as to how and why these blatant hygiene violations occur and how food manufacturers are getting away with them?

Food safety auditThe why they occur

This can be explained by poor training, poor supervision and poor leadership. Shop floor workers rarely get adequate training. An hour food safety induction training once a year simply won’t cut it.

Frequently, the issues occur because they simply are not noticed. Food safety often is not properly checked nor followed up at supervisor level. For example, cleaning will take place and the supervisor will check very superficially, if at all.

In many instances, it is senior managers who lack proper food safety training and tend to underestimate food safety risks. Too many are in the mode of ”doing the right thing” rather than “doing it right”.

Food safety should not be seen simply as something that’s the “right thing to do”. It is a core part of managing a business the right way.

Besides the food safety training of managers there is also a lack of proper leadership in the food industry. Very few managers I have encountered over the years have the correct skill set to communicate and motivate people.

Basics such as job descriptions and performance evaluations are simply not in place. As a result personnel know very little about the business, the role they play and are subsequently not motivated at all.

The how they occur

Then there is the question of how food manufacturers are getting away with it. Well, very few food manufacturers are actually aware that these food safety violations are happening under their noses. They are living in denial.

Government health inspectors are supposed to be the first line of defence but are unfortunately not skilled enough to find these issues. Internal inspectors know the process better but still tend to miss the issues because of inexperience and under-training.

That leaves it up to external auditors. Their competency is normally better but. more often than not. it is also inadequate.

The fact that there are more and more audit standards and customer requirements makes matters worse. Checklists are becoming longer and auditors don’t have the time to get their hands dirty inside the factory and uncover the real issues.

Instead, auditors are sitting in offices and checking paperwork against checklists. It’s also no secret that there is the big clean-up before the audit and audit conditions are not consistent with real everyday conditions.

This all leads to a false sense of security. The assumption is made that if there is a food safety certificate on the wall, there will not be issues such as urine, insect infestation or foreign material contamination in the factory.

Top ten lessons

During my career I have also seen some very good food safety systems. So, to end of on a positive note, let’s look at the top 10 lessons that I have learnt during my career from these good factories. Lessons that food safety personnel, management and fellow auditors can use:

  • Do not live in denial. Do not assume there the factory is free from really bad hygiene issues.
  • Implement a thorough internal inspection program. It must include disassembling equipment and forensically chasing down the pests, dirt, poor discipline and foreign materials.
  • Senior management should be actively involved in food safety. This starts with incorporating food safety into the company goals.
  • Senior managers must have a visual presence in food safety. Daily housekeeping walk throughs are a must.
  • Never assume that everybody understands their job and their food safety role. This needs to be actively managed.
  • Motivate personnel. Every day at each opportunity.
  • Don’t assign food safety to one person. This should be done by an experienced multi-disciplinary team.
  • Do not have a false sense of security over certification or customer audits. This is only a snap shot.
  • Communicate food safety to all levels.
  • Don’t window dress. Every day is audit day.


Rolf UysAbout Rolf Uys:

Rolf Uys holds a MSc in Food Science and currently owns the Western Cape and Tshwane franchises for Entecom, a food safety training and consulting company. His mission is to ignite a passion for food safety. Rolf can be contacted at [email protected]