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Document Control for Food Safety: Common Mistakes and Best Practices

Rachel Beavins Tracy
by Rachel Beavins Tracy on Tue, Dec 19, 2017

Document Control for Food Safety: Common Mistakes and Best PracticesAsk the average food manufacturer today about their Document Control system, and more often than not they’ll likely start dragging out paperwork from some dusty file cabinet. Other companies might pull up a server drive or file sharing app where they keep electronic copies of key documents like manuals, specifications and job instructions.

And while electronic tracking is undoubtedly a step ahead of paper-based methods still prevalent at many food manufacturing facilities today, neither are any guarantee of effectiveness. Today, we’re looking at what food and beverage manufacturers need to know about document control, including the most common mistakes and how companies can get a better handle on this important process.

How Poor Document Control Affects Food Manufacturers

We’ve talked before on this blog about document control gaps and the costs to companies. These costs include visible problems, such as sending outdated versions of specifications to suppliers, as well as less visible problems, like how much time people waste looking for documents. According to some estimates, the latter accounts for as much as 8 hours out of the average employee’s work week.

Common documentation mistakes driving these and other problems include:

  • Proliferation of versions with inconsistent titles and numbering.
  • Not following your own company’s stated document control policy (or not having one at all).
  • Linking to other documents that don’t match up with the most updated version of that document.
  • Sharing key documents via email, making it harder to find them and often leading to versioning mistakes.

These errors make it difficult to find the most updated document at any given time, which can obviously be a huge problem. Versioning mistakes have big implications in terms of manufacturing costs, not to mention it looks pretty bad during an audit if you can’t find requested documents when you need them.

Document Control Best Practices

If you’re just getting started with creating an electronic Document Control system, you’ll want to start with basic best practices such as:

  • Consolidating all key documents in a centralized location.
  • Establishing formalized document control procedures outlining revision frequency, review process, timelines and who’s required to participate.
  • Using a consistent title and numbering system that clearly shows the most recent version.
  • Ensuring that you update related documents and processes when you make changes to documents such as policies, procedures and specifications.

Comparing Document Control Options

When transitioning to an electronic Document Control system, companies have a few options. The first option is the homegrown system, such as creating a folder on a shared server drive.  The drawback to this is that you have very little control over who changes documents and when, which can lead to versioning issues and other problems.

The second option is a point solution that only covers document control. While these software solutions often come with some fancy bells and whistles, that specialization does come at a cost in terms of being able to link document changes to other key processes.

The third option is implementing a Document Control system that’s integrated with other aspects of your Quality Management System (QMS), including:

  • Employee Training: Updates to documents can automatically trigger new employee training requirements.
  • Supplier Management: When sharing documents with suppliers, you can be sure that you’re linking to the most updated version.
  • Compliance tracking: Being able to link compliance obligations to internal controls such as updated policy documents can help you identify and eliminate high-risk compliance gaps.
  • Change Management: When you make changes to procedures, people or equipment as part of a formal change management initiative, this often triggers a need to update documents as well.

Benefits of Integrated Document Control

Compared to homegrown systems and point solutions, integrated Document Control tools offer significant benefits in terms of saving time and closing the loop on food safety. These tools make it easier for companies to:

  • Comply with best practices, standards and regulations related to food safety documentation.
  • Quickly access key documents on demand, which in addition to reducing wasted time also helps make a positive impression early in the audit process.
  • Execute recalls faster and more efficiently, potentially limiting their scope and cost.
  • Run reports on document data to determine which need to be updated and their current status.

In the world of food safety, document control is all about doing what you say and saying what you do. An automated system takes the guesswork out of it, so you’re not left managing the details manually. Ask any manufacturer who has made the transition, and they will likely tell you they’re not going back.

Learn the best practices of food safety in this guidebook

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