Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Can you trust organic claims?

Well there is no 100 guarantee!
There has always been fraud and there always will be fraud in markets.
In the last issue of The Organic Standard, I write the following on how we can reduce fraud.

To reduce fraud, in general, we can work in several, complementary ways. First and foremost, we must all support values and ethics that are honest and that view all types of fraud as a serious issue. Secondly, those on the receiving end, that is, those buying the product need to be just a trifle critical and not believe everything they are told. Not necessarily on the level of distrust, but say because they are maintaining a healthy curiosity. Thirdly, there should be a system of verification, certification of the claims. And finally, there should be a system
for enforcement and penalties for those that cheat.

Beginning with the producers and operators, we must realise that they are the ones that essentially provide the organic guarantee to the consumers. The system stands and fails with
them. If the producers are happy with the system, they will be inclined to feel that the system is theirs and will understand and want to follow the rules. If they feel the rules are dictated
from outside, or if they do not have technical or financial solutions to the problems they are confronted with, they will be tempted to cheat. In the early days of organic movements,
standards were developed by the growers themselves, or by organisations that at least were very close to the growers. Today, rules are increasingly set by governments. Still, within
that system, there are various measures to get the voice of the producers heard; the first step is certainly to make the rule-making process open and participatory. Once the rules are made, producers should be able to follow them. Far too often, rules are set that are impossible to follow, with the end result that producers are forced to cheat the system, or that derogations have to be formulated. This kind of rule-making undermines trust. Again, more participation, but also processes such as field-testing the standards and impact assessments of new rules, are
ways of dealing with it. We also need more support, advice, and technical development to make it possible to follow the rules.

Open information about all parts of the guarantee system is essential to create trust, but also to keep people in line. The more detail provided by the producer, the bigger the chance that
a contradiction will occur leading to the detection of fraud. It is one thing to say ‘I am organic’, it is quite a different story to explain how the land is fertilised, how pests are treated, etc. And it is not only certification bodies that can expose fraud. As with many of the fraud cases, it is often people in the trade that suspect fraud, especially large-scale fraud. The more information
everybody in the trade has access to, the more easily fraud will be detected. Negligence on the side of the certification bodies, accreditation bodies or authorities is also prevented by transparency in those processes.

The certification process itself has been subject to a lot of development. The shift from ‘control and inspection’ to ‘audit’ is more than just terminology. The audit culture is based on
documentation and analysis of how a system works, rather than critically checking what actually happens. This has two drawbacks. One is that this is not the natural way small producers,
farmers or food processors work; they are as unlikely to implement a quality management system in their operation as you and I are in our own lives. This means that they are alienated from those systems – and therefore more inclined to cheat. Secondly, it is a lot easier to fake a ‘system’ than fake the actual flow of products. It is the same in financial auditing, where it is rare
that the auditors discover fraud. It should be possible to increase real control in the certification process. Again, more transparency is a good place to start as well as working closely with business associations and others that have access to market knowledge. To act decisively and swiftly on signals from the public, employees, competitors, suppliers or buyers to the operator,
and to integrate the management of such sources of information into the process is necessary.

Finally, we see some cases of real enforcement of organic rules. That is good. Hopefully, legal actions, fines and imprisonment are limited to the real fraudsters. It would be tragic if
small-scale negligence enters the legal system. Minor violations by certified operators are best managed within the certification system. Good cooperation between the enforcing authorities
and the certification bodies is essential. This will ensure the efficient working of the system, and will result in mutual learning and a culture of improvement on both sides. We must always remember that to invite trade associations and growers’ associations to be active partners in fraud prevention and detection is a good way to create ownership as well as results.

No comments:

Post a Comment