Guest Editorial by Cathy Crawford
No matter how well-run an establishment is, each will at some time answer a Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) Record of Noncompliance (NR). Sometimes the nature of the NR seems as innocuous as a traffic ticket. An establishment might make minor errors by hurrying or not paying enough attention to detail. The NR serves as a reminder to stay on track. With not much time to think about it, the establishment answers the NR and moves on.
While one NR may not seem to be a cause for concern, a collection of NRs over time, or a single NR poorly answered can cause significant problems for an establishment. Each answer can lead to future FSIS follow-up activities and can also be retrieved through the Freedom of Information Act and used by the media or the public to learn more about your Establishment. For these reasons, each answer should be carefully prepared. Following are some helpful reminders on answering NRs.
- Be sure the NR is accurate before you respond. If it is not, consider an appeal.
- Spell check and grammar check. Remember these documents become part of public record.
- Be careful of what you promise. Be sure to follow through on any actions mentioned in the immediate future or further planned actions. Don’t promise a frequency that may be unreasonable such as ‘continual’, ‘hourly’ or ‘daily’ depending on your resources. Actions must match what was promised and they should be backed up as often as possible in writing.
- Don’t use ‘common’ language. An outsider may misinterpret some words that are familiar to you at your own facility. Read the response as if a stranger would read it and be sure it makes sense.
- Be factual and confident. Do not interject opinion or use weak-sounding phrases. Phrases like “we feel’ or “we believe” should be replaced by “management has ensured” or “the policy regarding this matter is….”.
- Ensure that the words in the NR and your words are factual. If FSIS documentation in the NR is vague, and you do not wish to appeal the NR or the inspector is not likely to adjust his/her comments, clarify those comments in your response. An inspector comment of “excessive pieces” should be clarified to indicate the actual number and size. An expression such as “the QA failed to observe” is not able to be proven and should be discussed with the inspector. If the language in the NR is very vague, you should consider an appeal based on the fact that this information may mislead the reader. Remember that the NR is sometimes the only record a person might see when learning about your establishment.
- Address product involvement / disposition and a return to sanitary conditions. These should be specifically addressed if the NR causes any doubt related to these issues. If it is very clear that the NR has nothing to do with product, product does not need to be addressed. It is still recommended to document that no product was affected by the incident described. An indication that an object or area was re-cleaned and inspected is not sufficient evidence that sanitary conditions were in fact restored. The response should document that the area was deemed acceptable.
- Include only the essential information in the response. Specifically address each of the concerns documented in the NR. Don’t leave anything un-addressed, but do not go beyond this by mentioning additional practices or programs unrelated to the issue(s) at hand.
- Dissolve any implied links or trends if they are not accurate. If an inspector is documenting a trend either by naming previous discussions or meetings or by linking specific NR’s it is important to try to un-link the concerns addressed. If possible, ask for a modification of the NR to remove the connecting language or appeal it as needed. These links and trends are major factors leading to a FSIS, Food Safety Assessment. If the inspector does not modify the NR or an appeal is not successful, ensure that the facility response addresses not only the issue at hand, but also the implied trend. If a previous NR was specifically mentioned ensure that your response indicates that you did accomplish the immediate and preventative measures in the previous NR. Indicate if possible that the root cause is not the same and that the previous root cause was successfully addressed.
Each NR should be carefully considered to ensure that all regulatory aspects have been adequately addressed. An NR written for a sanitation issue and an NR written for a HACCP issue would not be answered in the same manner. A review of your written program and the associated regulations is advised.
Finally, once per year it is a good practice to review all NRs and the answers provided. The review may reveal a preventive measure that was not fully implemented; a need for training on how to answer NRs; or, the presence of a potential trend that you can correct before any of these issues lead to an enforcement action in the future.
Cathy Crawford is an associate member of the HACCP Consulting Group. For more information, call (757) 357-5654 or visit www.haccpcg.com.