Monday, July 23, 2012

Where does the buck stop?

‘Passing the buck’ is an English expression. It means letting someone else take care of a problem or take on the responsibility. The former US President Truman famously had a sign on his desk saying that ”the buck stops here”. Clarifying that he was ultimately in charge.

Who is really in charge? Who is to blame? These are questions that come into mind when reading the European Court of Auditor’s report on the EU organic system. Some of their conclusions could have been drawn directly from earlier leaders of The Organic Standard...

The EU system is built on competing national certification bodies – in some countries up to thirty certification bodies – with oversight by a plethora of national and sometimes regional authorities, accreditation by national accreditors ( only one per country because they have been granted monopoly by the European Union) and oversight by the European Commission. The system has developed not based on the needs of the sector but on the needs and habits of the governments. That is the only reason why authority for approval of certification bodies follows the divisions of the governments. And it is why in some countries regional authorities are in charge and in most countries several authorities are in charge.

Because of an, unfortunate, reference to the EN 45011 (ISO 65) in the EU Regulation back in 1997, national accreditation bodies came into the game, bringing little added value, but increasing cost and increasing focus on rather unimportant procedures. As they were given a monopoly of accreditation, they also swayed the EU that they should have the monopoly of interpreting the EN 45011, a rather outrageous claim.

All of the actors in the system have resource constraints, and will only do what they are forced to do. Most of them also lack competency. Some of the authorities are even hostile to the organic sector despite it being within their mandate to supervise and approve the certification bodies. How does that make the certification bodies and producers feel? The EU has rarely conducted any supervision of what the Member States do. And the ‘transaction costs’ of keeping all in the systems up to date and informed are astronomical. But the biggest problem is that nobody takes responsibility. A concerned consumer in an EU country or a food processor that suspects you’re a competitor is cheating, has nowhere to go with a query because nobody is in charge.

This mess is likely to lead to calls for more controls and more supervision, probably by strengthening the Commissions oversight, and increased reporting upwards by all concerned. But that is the wrong way to go.

What the system needs is rationalisation and fewer actors. There are several options for this. By integrating organic controls into the normal food control system, like in Denmark, both certification and accreditation can be eliminated, and accountability is clear. The same can be accomplished by having a national monopoly for certification, like in the Netherlands. By recognising one international accreditation system for all certification bodies, such as the IOAS, certification bodies could operate freely within all the European territories. In any case, the national approvals of certification bodies are antiquated and could be abolished; a certification body is approved in one country it should be allowed to operate freely in the other countries.

This is not the place to make the blueprint for a new system, but any new system should be built on fewer actors and fewer layers and clearer lines of responsibility, and as much as possible responsibility should be at the ‘lower’ levels, i.e. with the producers and the certification bodies.

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