Ahhh, so you want to be in Quality Assurance (QA)? WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU!? I'm just kidding, but seriously though.... you should consider investing in a good therapist, yoga mat (skip the yoga pants), antacids, coffee maker (don't cheap out--get the good stuff), your local drinking establishment, or whatever else makes you forget the onslaught of daily psychological abuse. Please know that I wear my QA "badge" (it’s really just a lab coat) proudly. However, you need to understand that this job is not a typical 9-to-5. Every day is different, every problem is unique, and people burn out so fast it'll remind you of your college freshman seminar speech (remember the one where the Chancellor says, "look at the person to your left and right, as one of them will not make it after year one?").
I like you already.
So here are the top 8 things I wish I'd known before I started in QA.
8. Difference between QA and QC
Although we use this term interchangeably in the industry, some of the functions are quite different. QC or Quality Control, in the food industry, is typically reserved for a team that conducts inspections or analytical tests for the facility. These checks/inspections are typically done on an hourly, daily, weekly, monthly, and annual basis. This is the team that knows every nook and cranny of the facility. QA or Quality Assurance, is a team of people who were typically former QC's, and decided to move into a world of writing SOP's (Standard Operating Procedures) and Policies, and auditing... which pretty much makes you the most popular person around (insert emoticon for heavy sarcasm here).
7. QA is the Bad Guy
Although we do wear lab coats and goggles, and, yes, some of us are somewhat socially awkward, we don't walk around a laboratory laughing maniacally, scheming how to make your life a living hell. Because we typically have the deciding vote over other departments (e.g. Operations/Production, and Engineering) in regard to which products are appropriate for consumption, you can imagine that this can create a bit of animosity between departments. Not sure why? Let me use this soccer analogy (Futbol/Football for the rest of the world). Production and Engineering are the players on the field, and their primary goal (no pun intended) is to score as many goals as possible. Well, once in a while someone cheats, and tries to bend the rules of the game. This is where QC and QA come in. Think of us as referees. We're often disliked, and even hated, booed, but someone has to enforce the rules of the game, throw out a few flags/red cards, and even eject a few dummies off the field.
6. Audits Are a Part of Daily Life
There are numerous types of audits which we will discuss subsequently, however you should know that audits are a part of your life in QA. Live it, Learn it, Love it. There is really no way around them, as audits are designed to make you better and prevent you and your facility from becoming complacent. Audits in the food industry primarily cover the federal food safety requirements (e.g. FDA, USDA, DPH), as well as the global industry requirements (e.g. GFSI – Global Food Safety Initiative).
5. Types of Audits
Typically we have three types of audits. Internal Audits, which, as they sound, are given by an internal member of the company. It’s usually best to have the auditor not be in charge of an area they are auditing as it could create bias in reporting of non-conformities. Customer Audits, which are typically given by your customer or an agency they’ve contracted. And finally, Third Party Audits, which are audits conducted by an auditing agency against a Globally recognized scheme. GFSI (Global Food Safety Initiative) is a commonly used scheme, and an acronym you should know by heart.
So you would think that by having a minimum of three audits per year you're done? Think again (and did I mention that you have to also pay for them?). I hate to break this to you, but this is not the end. Audits exist to satisfy your internal and customer's requirements, while Inspections exist to satisfy government requirements. Which means that when an inspector/investigator shows up at your door, and they will, it can mean the difference between staying in business or, quite literally, shutting down. These inspections can vary in length and intensity. They can range from a few hours, to a few days, to few months. As an example, I once sat through a four month long USDA audit (FSA)... but on the bright side you get to really bond with a complete stranger.
3. Being On Call
Although you may typically associate this job requirement with firefighters, police officers, and doctors, not many people know this little tidbit. QA and QC teams in the food industry are on call 24/7. Definitely expect to be called at 3am, and do expect to get out of bed, or the club, and head to work for numerous reasons – anything from a sanitation issue, to a full-blown food safety recall.
2. Difference Between State Regulations and State Inspectors
When I talk about differences in states, I am primarily talking about California here. In the early years of my career, I had the pleasure of working in states like Florida, North Carolina, Georgia, and Ohio. Typically, all of these states share common practices between Food and Public Health agencies. However, when I received my promotion to run the West Coast Quality Control Departments, one difference my department failed to mention (because no-one knew this fact) was regarding the California Department of Public Health (CDPH). Eventually when a CDPH inspector showed up at my facility for our regular inspection, I was quite shocked that they carried a badge, a gun, and a pair of handcuffs. No pressure.
1. Responsibility and Ethics
I'm not going sit here and pretend that I am the world’s most ethical person. Sure, I've told my girlfriend on occasion that I really liked a particular purse just so we could leave the mall, but these are not the same ethics we are talking about. I am talking about doing the right thing all of the time, even when no one is looking. The responsibility that you as QA or QC professional bear is to all of the people who eat your product. Always keep in mind that if you knowingly release a bad product into commerce, the results could be catastrophic, and even deadly.
I hope we didn’t scare you too much. In the end, being a QA/QC professional is actually quite rewarding. In a way, you are the unsung hero of the food industry. So just as any caped crusader, this job will test your mettle to its core. On the bright side though, you get to play with food all day.