Remote auditing is here to stay - Steve Cliff from Esterchem

Remote auditing has really come into its own during the global Covid-19 pandemic, with on-site visits increasingly difficult and sometimes impossible to arrange. For companies such as ester manufacturer Esterchem, remote audits are the most practical way to ensure compliance. Steve Cliff, quality and environmental manager at Esterchem, even believes the many other advantages of remote auditing mean it’s set to be a permanent feature of business life, irrespective of any COVID-19 impact. He explains why.

Who is Esterchem and what does it do?

“Esterchem manufactures speciality esters for use in the feed, food and industrial sectors. Our HQ and manufacturing site is located in Leek, the UK. We have an annual turnover of €25 million and employ 70 people.”

What are your most critical processes that need auditing and how often does it happen?

“Our animal feed production has become a significant part of the business over the years. We must comply with the highest FEMAS – Feed Materials Assurance Scheme – and government standards in food safety and security. Compliance is carried out annually to meet FEMAS standards. Local government trading standards carry out audits as well.”

How did you handle audits before COVID-19?

“All auditing here was done face to face. This inevitably led to multiple hard-copy folders and paperwork filling the meeting room. And collating all that paperwork in the first place can be time consuming and stressful.”

How has auditing changed for you since COVID-19 and what role does remote auditing play?

“Since COVID-19 restrictions were imposed, remote auditing has become the most practical way to ensure compliance. Several remote audits have been completed – such as for ISO9001, RSPO and FEMAS. These have been carried out at varying technical ability: from simple email requests and phone calls to the online portal and meeting carried out by Kiwa for the FEMAS compliance audit.”

What’s been the most significant difference for you between on-site and remote auditing?

“Remote auditing allows for uploading digital documents, which really cuts down on waste paper. You no longer have to print out stacks of computer documents for the auditor to review, only for them to be disposed of after the audit.”

What are the biggest advantages that remote auditing brings to your business?

“Audits become less stressful, since there is no more chasing around for files that may be in someone else’s office or inaccessible at the time. Being able to check off all the requested documentation before the audit provides you, as the auditee, some confidence that the audit will go well. That’s a real asset. And, of course, the waste paper: there’s so much less of it!”

Have you experienced any important limitations with remote auditing?

“Very few, really. Remote auditing can be more limiting than a face-to-face meeting when you’re explaining how a procedure is carried out. And it takes quite some time to scan and upload all the required paper files. But we’re upgrading to an enhanced digital system so this will be less of an issue soon.”

How would you compare the standards between remote auditing and on-site auditing?

“I believe remote auditing can achieve the same standards as face-to-face on-site visits. All companies have been forced to adapt during the global pandemic with processes being completed remotely and from home that we thought unachievable in the past.”

Is remote auditing a step in the right direction for your business?

“Yes. The remote auditing portal utilised by Kiwa provides a clear and linear progression of the documentation required and you and auditor can easily work through the standard together. In fact, I’d say the audit portal for Kiwa/FEMAS has been the most user-friendly and professional format of all the audits carried out on Esterchem this year. There’s also a benefit in the centralisation of documents because this allows the management of the standard to continuously improve and the company to flag up discrepancies straight away.”

Do you think remote auditing here to stay?

“Yes, in one form or another. Take our FEMAS audit. This was conducted remotely for the documentation, followed by an on-site inspection when COVID restrictions were lifted. This format enabled a short conversation to close out any questions or follow-ups needed after the documentation audit. That made it much more time-efficient.”

Photo: Esterchem's HQ and manufacturing site located in Leek, the UK.