|Time for more control?|
|Written by Gunnar Rundgren|
|Tuesday, 15 December 2009 01:00|
In several articles and leaders lately we have highlighted the reliability, or lack of reliability, of the certification system. In the previous issue we expressed some doubts about how useful accreditation is when it comes to ensuring that organic products really are organic. We questioned whether the quality systems approach as reflected in the accreditation process and in ISO 65 actually delivers in terms of reliability of organic products.
Without doubt the quality systems audit approach is good at detecting deficiencies in the quality system itself. But the quality system itself has no inherent value; it is there to deliver something, to deliver assurance of conformity to organic standards. Most will agree that it is of the utmost importance that direct fraud with organic products is detected, while it is of minor importance that deficiencies in the documentation of the organic farmer are corrected, or that the certification bodies have a record of all training events for their inspectors/auditors. Between these extremes are the situations where quality management principles are probably most useful; where mistakes can be prevented. However, it is the risk of fraud that has been the driver for all certification, accreditation and regulations. Despite all the additional layers of conformity assessment and quality systems that have been introduced in the last decades, fraud is still high on the agenda. The anti-fraud initiative is welcome, but should we not also ask what we have been doing the last twenty years when such initiatives are needed?
Our research in Sweden shows that competition in organic certification resulted in lower prices and better service for the clients. However, competition may reduce the reliability of certification and by inference also on the accreditation system; competition led to less stringent controls. When certification was ‘branded’, which was the dominant model at that time (with organisations such as Bioland, Oregon Tilth, Soil Association, VSBLO and KRAV) the certification bodies had a keen interest to protect the value of their brand. Certification bodies competed by being ‘better than the other ones’. Being ‘better’ often meant having stricter standards and a rigorous inspection system. This often led to the undesired situation of ‘my organic is better than yours’, i.e. a differentiation in the market that often relied on making the competitors look bad. However, that undesirable situation was - and still is in some cases - avoided in the monopolistic systems conducted in the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland, countries that represent three different models of monopoly.
When certification is a service that allows the certified operators to claim adherence to legislation or a private standard (such as KRAV today or GOTS) with a mark then this driver for reliability is lost. Consequently it depends on accreditation as the means to solve the problem. Both the Swedish experience, with competition for the private sector mark, and the experience from the EU generally (where the competition is on the level of the regulation and the mark) do not suggest that (national) accreditation has done much to increase reliability and trust in organic products.
It is now eighteen years since the EU Regulation was put in force and still the same issues are discussed: how to prevent fraud, how to improve cooperation between certification bodies etc. The report from the EU on the supervision of certification bodies and control authorities shows that there are still big differences between how the inspection and certification systems are implemented in different countries. For example, in some countries chemical analysis plays a big role, while others do mostly unannounced inspections and still other countries rely mostly on quality audits. Even how key definitions, such as infringements and irregularities, are understood differs considerably between countries. The EU should be commended for making the report public, and we look forward to more in-depth analysis in future reports. Transparency as a key element for trust-building cannot be overrated.
Running parallel to the calls for more controls are other calls for more participation such as with Participatory Guarantee Systems, which represents a third option beside the quality management and control (policing) paradigm. Certification systems certainly do not have to be the same everywhere, but we do believe there should be more in-depth debate on how the system can deliver what it is all about, that is, trust in organic. It would be useful to discuss all the models - including total integration in government control; participatory guarantee systems; certification monopolies; quality audits versus inspection and controls to mention just the most apparent versions - with an open mind. Also, on the next level perhaps the concept of a global watchdog, in place of global or national accreditors, should be explored?
Who takes it up?
The Organic Standard is owned and published by Grolink.