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Conducting virtual farm audits during the COVID-19 lockdown

NSF International says rapid innovation and determination helped it re-start farm audits just three days after the UK entered lockdown, ensuring farmers could continue to sell their produce as assured.

26 April 2020, at 10:29am

Most assessments take place in farmers’ homes so offices were halted in March when the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown was established. But with farms desperate to gain or maintain their assurance status to sell products to retailers, the UK’s leading provider of farm audits turned to technology.

NSF has developed live-streamed audits using the secure video conferencing software, BlueJeans. Within 72 hours of lockdown the first physical audits were being replaced by the new approach. Following positive feedback from members, auditors and scheme owners, NSF says it is now “business as usual” for all new and existing farmer members who require an audit.

Using BlueJeans, auditors are able to visually assess all parts of a member’s business, from buildings and animals to documents and records, while maintaining all social distancing and isolation requirements.

NSF Agriculture Director Anita Roberts
NSF Agriculture Director Anita Roberts

Agriculture Director Anita Roberts said: “All our farming customers can be reassured that the NSF International team will help them through this new process.

“We recognise that technology is not something everyone is comfortable with and we have therefore trained our assessors and team members to help our farm members through the process.”

Roberts added that all assessors have received training on the heightened risks that Covid-19 brings so they can share those insights and thoughts with farmers as they complete assessments.

In the pig sector, Lucy Jones, Wold Farms Operations Manager – which is part of Cranswick – was one of the first to undergo a remote assessment. She said: “NSF International has been the most proactive group in looking for solutions and was really quick to provide reassurance about a way forward. Communication has been great – really personable and with a genuine interest in our concerns.

“We did our first trial audit three days after the UK went into lockdown. These remote audits and systems were so easy to use and I feel that they really inspire confidence in food safety for the public in this time of uncertainty.”

Karro Food’s Head of Agriculture Nick Davies has also seen the new system implemented on farms within his business. He said: "Our primary concern was ensuring the welfare of both farmer partners and our pigs was not compromised by carrying out any process that risked life.

“Once we were confident we had a robust process to trial the audit, everyone was really surprised and pleased with the effectiveness and ease of the process carried out on the day."

Davies says NSF has been quick to recognise solutions were needed where we had new farms that needed assurance.

“The full audit delivered through video was excellent. The auditor was clear, drilled into the detail, completing traces from bottle to document for example. It was just like the auditor was sitting by the farmer. The farmer wasn’t phased by the process and wasn’t a high technology user but did have a good internet connection across the farm,” he said.

NSF International carries out 30,000 farm assessments a year and believes it was the first certification body to find workable solutions for carrying out the farm audits during the Covid-19 restrictions. The company is also very aware of the increased periods of isolation many farmers are likely to experience while restrictions on movement continue.

“Our assessors are often the only non-family member a farmer sees during the day so we are proud to continue our sponsorship of the Farming Community Network (FCN),” Roberts added.

“FCN volunteers are always available to talk on the phone and help to arrange any support or assistance you may need.”

FCN call lines are available on 03000 111 999 anytime between 7am and 11pm or on email at help@fcn.org.uk.

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