July 15, 2020

Science & Technology: Virtual Audits Offer a Solution for a Novel Problem

By Marlene Hanken

This year has been a wild six months full of obstacles and uncertainties. The emergence of COVID-19 has produced numerous unforeseen challenges and difficulties for the economy and agriculture has been no exception.

While it would be easy to dwell on the hardships and what seems like never-ending obstacles combating the spread of a novel virus, we find great pride and hope in the brilliant and adaptable minds of our members and industry partners. We are  confident that our industry will meet these challenges head on as have the many agricultural pioneers of generations past.

Western Growers is ready to meet those challenges with you.

One challenge identified early on in the rise of COVID-related issues has been continuing audits while still adhering to Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidance on slowing the virus. Guidance requires a reduction in human contact, which in turn meant the pre-COVID in-person audit process would present challenges when following guidelines to mitigate virus transmission. In light of the current situation and government suspension of domestic inspections, Western Growers and the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement (CALGMA) worked together to launch a Virtual Desktop Audits Program to allow audits to continue while significantly reducing in-person contact.

The virtual audits program relies on an online software platform developed by iFoodDecisionSciences that allows leafy greens handlers to upload audit documents to their own online repository for the auditor to access the day of an audit. This system allows for a segmented process, promoting security and an order that mimics the in-person audit process.

Handlers gather information to answer the online audit questions and upload supporting documents at their convenience from the time they sign up for an online account up until the audit date. The repository is viewed in a questionnaire format that models the LGMA audit checklist utilized during an in-person audit. This makes document organization intuitive and enables easy fulfillment of all the required documents to satisfy the checklist of questions. Unlike other online platforms, as documents get uploaded the system allows them to stay organized and in-line with audit questions—reducing confusion for both handlers during upload and auditors during the review. The handler will work to complete the audit up until the audit date, at which time the auditor will then proceed to review supplied documentation and work with the handler to complete the audit.

While it is early in the program, the outlook is promising for successful integration into the audit process. Early adopters of the program have made note of the quick onboarding process (less than 24 hours), the streamlining of the documentation process, and the versatility in data sharing after entering. The most notable feature of this system is the handler’s ability to share information with multiple processors and shippers. Audit information is entered once and then can be shared multiple times with different companies. Auditors have also provided positive feedback on the ease of use, gauging audit fulfillment, and the intuitive navigation of the software. The option of virtual desktop audits is showing promising results for handlers and auditors alike.

Though the need for a virtual solution to substitute the in-person portion of the LGMA audit process was initiated by COVID-19, Western Growers can see the adoption of a virtual audit process, either in part or as a whole, as a great resource in the future. It can reduce time and costs associated with in-person audits while offering a variety of benefits such as efficiency, ease of use, and convenience. The Arizona Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement is also considering adopting the program and adapting it to the needs of its members.

Even after the need for social distancing measures has subsided, we will encourage members to explore hybrid models: combining in-person audits with virtual components to find the solution that best fits the needs of their operations. Western Growers will continue to work with members to produce effective and meaningful data solutions for agriculture’s toughest problems. It is only through ingenuity and innovation that we can make it through the toughest times together.

If you are interested finding out more about the Virtual Desktop Audits Program or are interested in signing up, email us at lgmavirtualaudits@wga.com to begin the on-boarding process.