|Many roads to integrity|
|Written by The Organic Standard|
|Monday, 15 February 2010 15:45|
This issue of TOS reports on various events related to the effectiveness of the certification system at ensuring – or should we rather say protecting – organic integrity.
From the first self-claim by the producer ‘I am organic’ the organic movement embarked on a process with many steps. The first was standardisation, to define what ‘organic’ meant. This was followed by some kind of inspection or verification, mostly by a group of peers, colleagues. Later this evolved into inspection and certification by third party certification bodies. And to be sure that they were doing their job well enough accreditation also developed.
Finally, the whole system was codified in governmental regulation adding yet another (the final?) layer of control. Still the fundamental question is the same today as it was thirty years ago: can the claim that a product is organic really be trusted? Previous issues of TOS have discussed the limited value of the accreditation system, and that there are inherent problems with competition within certification.
The focus of the organic sector for the last twenty years has been to build the system described above. During this period rather little has been done to develop methods, within or outside that system, to detect fraud, or even to improve integrity. This is true despite the fact that prevention, or at least detection of and penalisation of fraud, were overarching objectives of the whole exercise of certification, accreditation and regulation. In recent years, as the system has stabilised, and people have begun to realise that the system itself is not actually very effective in discovering fraud, there has been renewed interest in the methodology of fraud detection.
It is quite clear from the reports in this issue that on the product testing level there is no method that can confirm organic authenticity. For the time being, all that is available is too complex and too expensive for routine use. However, science continues to move forward, and considering what was achieved in the last decade, the practical application to test ‘authenticity’ may be there in another decade. However, it is not likely that such methods could replace the current process-orientated inspections. Over the years TOS has called for several changes to the system – more risk based approach; less meaningless routine work and data collection; more investigative approach by inspectors; better auditing and investigation skills by inspectors; more and better communication between certifiers and more unannounced inspections. These are now at the centre of the debate.
One conclusion drawn from recent fraud cases in Europe is that suspicions must be vigorously and quickly pursued, through additional inspections and in-depth investigations, including sampling and chemical analysis.
An obstacle here is the competition between certification bodies and the consequent pressure on certification fees, which means that the certification bodies are reluctant to charge sufficiently to make it viable to have a person work for weeks on just one singe case.
It might be that a unified complaint mechanism and investigative body could be the solution to ensuring consistent and swift handling of suspected fraud. Most people thought that government and accreditation bodies would fill that role. Accreditation bodies clearly do not, governments do to some extent, but once a case enters the legal system the process is very slow.
TOS has repeatedly called for more transparency. It is disturbing that, despite explicit demands in the ISO 65, most certification bodies do not even publish the name and addresses of those certified. It is even more disturbing that the accreditation bodies let them get away with this blatant violation of the norm - and that governments and the EU Commission accept it. But there are some positive developments: data of more than 18,000 German organic producers are now entered into the bioC database, where one can search certificates. All German certification bodies should participate and the system should preferably be expanded EU-wide or why not worldwide? The EU Commission should endorse - and fund - such an expansion.
Transparency builds trust in the longer term. It works as a peer-review by the stakeholders; an inspection report that is made public could be scrutinised by 50 persons instead of just being filed away by a certification officer; a concerned party could get a lot of information, information that may confirm or falsify suspicions of fraud.
If the inspection report records time spent at an inspection and what the inspector did on site, industry watchers can determine how much time the various certification bodies spend on inspections, and what the inspectors do there. This could be publicised and would lead to better practices.
The brief report recently published by the Commission, summarising the number of inspections, the samples taken and the identified non-conformities in the Member States, raised many eyebrows and was a good first step towards transparency of the system - even if not of individual cases. Transparency encourages participation by the stakeholders in solving problems. The ‘Organic Crusader’ initiative by Biological Farmers of Australia (see page 9) is another good example.
Of course there are, and will be unjustified claims filed by competing companies, and there might be ‘scandals’ emerging from just normal procedures, not understood by consumers or journalists. But these unjustified claims and rumours of scandals are widespread already. If complaints are taken seriously, they inevitably become more serious.
The Organic Standard is owned and published by Grolink.