Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Some good news from Brussels

It is always nice to have something positive to say. Below is my leader for the last issue of The Organic Standard

Congratulations, is the right greeting for the more than thirty certification bodies that have recently been approved by the European Union as providing equivalent guarantees that organic products are produced to standards equivalent to those within the European Union.

And congratulations are also in order for the Commission which managed to take this decision. It took two years. Hopefully we will see the process handled quicker in the future. It is hard to know the reasons why the process was so slow, apart from the fact that there seems to be a constant lack of human resources to implement increasingly complex regulations, developed by the European Union. As a result of the lack of transparency
- no list of applicants has, for example, been published - in the dealings of the European Union we are often left to guess when discussing the work of the Commission. For more than a year there was no communication from the Commission to the applicants. Initially, the Commission believed that it could make a simple ‘yes or no’ decision based on each applicant’s initial submission.

It appears, however, that hardly any certification body would have been approved if the Commission had followed that line. So finally, the Commission was forced to communicate
with the applicants. It appears that many of the well established European certification bodies and their accreditation bodies were a trifle too self-confident that they would be
approved and they paid the price. It is known that European accreditation bodies were disgruntled that many of the certification bodies that they have accredited did not get approval by the EU. Likewise, some Member States were not happy that certification
bodies based in their countries failed. Two times the organic committee failed to reach a decision on the list, but on the third attempt they approved it with only minor changes. The Commission should have credit for staying the course.

The winners are the underdogs; those certification bodies that for years have fought hard for acceptance in a competitive field where the EU based certification bodies had a much
easier access to approval. It is also a great victory for the International Organic Accreditation Services (IOAS). A substantial proportion of the certification bodies approved by the Commission are accredited by the IOAS, which means that their standard was assessed by the IOAS. The IOAS has had to fight for recognition by providing excellent service, competing in the EU with national accreditation bodies that are often considered ‘competent by default’ as they have nobody checking them.

There are still things in the model that need improvement. Current decisions are limited to a particular country, and certification bodies must prove that they have worked in a particular country to have this country included in their approval. This will be possible in a transitional situation where products can also be approved in other ways. But once the old import approval system is discarded, this will pose real problems for all those that work mainly with EU exports, a classic catch-22 situation. There are similar issues associated with how the scope of approval will be extended to include new product categories and
even a new standard. In addition, the system has not solved the problem of new entrants. If a certification body operates in a market where certification services are basically demanded for exports, how does it get its first approval if it has to demonstrate proof of actual operation? Which clients will buy the certification body’s services if it is not approved? The Commission should look into how its own Members States have solved this, and offer those on the others side of the frontier the same opportunities.

For a long time the EU offered import approvals based on single lots. These were administered by the Member States, and though it was a messy and unpredictable system it
did provide a pragmatic solution to a problem. A big step forward took place when the USA opened up direct accreditation of certification bodies as an option for imports, rather than
only approving countries. This appeared to be a lot better than the EU system, however, as more countries introduced the same system it is also apparent that such a system is very
resource-demanding. Some certification bodies pay the US Department of Agriculture more than fifty thousand dollars for their accreditation. Paying such sums for dozens, or even
hundreds, of separate accreditations is simply not rational. Also, insisting that overseas farmers comply in minute detail to the accrediting country’s standards is very far from
an organic perspective. The world needs to move towards a situation where one approval, one standard and one supervision is enough. The EU system is not there but it certainly is a
big step in the right direction.

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