By Blobaum, International Organic Accreditation Service, 2008
The IOAS and its services
The International Organic Accreditation Service (IOAS), a nonprofit sector-specific international body established by IFOAM 10 years ago, works worldwide providing a broad range of servio relating to conformity assessment in organic agriculture.
Initially established to operate the IFOAM Accreditation Program, the IOAS provides transparent and respected system of assessment against nationally and internationally agreed standards. The initial impetus for IFOAM Accreditation was, and still is, industry self regulation through which trust between organizations operating third party certification of organic enterprises can be assured. This program takes the IFOAM norms prepared by the international organic movement and puts them into practice.
In addition to IFOAM accreditation, the IOAS has been offering IS065 accreditation since 2003, mainly in response to the requirement of the European Union for compliance with EN4501. Six of the IOAS IS065 accredited certifiers are in the Asia Pacific Region. As the import regulation of the European Union phase in a new era of direct approval of certifiers, the IOAS expects to offering more services of this kind to certifiers outside of the EU.
The IOAS also offers reports on regulatory compliance, collaborates with government authorities, provides standards comparisons and training courses, and carries out fraud prevention and other initiatives related to harmonization and facilitation of organic trade worldwide. The regulatory reports compiled on the compliance of its accredited certifiers with the requirements ISO/IEC Guide 65 have been used since the late 1990s by European authorities to determine whether to authorize imports.
The IOAS quality system is independently recognized as compliant to ISO17011 by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) of the U.S. Department of Commerce. This independent recognition of IOAS as an accreditor of Certification Bodies for Organic Production and Processing confirms the competence of the IOAS in accrediting certification bodies for compliance with both IFOAM Norms and ISO/IEC Guide 65. The NIST recognition, granted in 2004 and renewed for two years in 2006, provides continuous surveillance of IOAS audits of its clients.
As of October 2007 the IOAS has also become an observer member of the International Accreditation Forum with a view to consolidating this as full membership within the next year.
This presentation outlines the global accreditation work of the IOAS with 42 certification bodies in the organic sector, including nine in six countries in the Asia Pacific Region. The IOAS list of accredited certification bodies (ACBs) includes certifiers operating in more than 75 countries on seven continents. It is estimated that these certifiers account for more than 50 percent of the organic products traded internationally.
Particular emphasis is given to examining this private model for organic-specific accreditation and how this builds trust and facilitates international trade. The expression of this trust is manifested in the Multilateral Agreement signed and implemented by the IOAS accredited bodies. The ACE meets the same requirements and are evaluated and judged by the same body regardless of size or location.
Many regulations and the need for harmonization
Governments are increasingly interested in regulating the organic sector and that is a good thing as they provide a backdrop of enforcement. Unfortunately the trend is toward individual countries developing their own standards and approval rather than referencing international standards such as Codex and the IFOAM norms. Currently more than 40 countries have implemented legislation on organic agriculture and at least 20 more are in the process of drafting such rules.
The subsequent requirement that other countries then demonstrate equivalence to the rules of the importing country is complex and slow and lacks accessibility and transparency. This adds unnecessary bureaucracy and cost to organic products. As a result, most certification bodies now operate multiple programs to ensure that products are seen to comply with the many regulations that have been developed and implemented.
In addition, many certification bodies are being evaluated by several authorities or accreditation bodies and this results in further duplication and increased costs for an already complicated system. One of the most pressing needs is reducing, or eliminating if possible, the duplicate evaluations required for certifiers seeking accreditation.
Although there is much agreement between the various standards and requirements for certification, there also is a good deal of disharmony that still persists as an obstacle to trade. The IOAS has joined the FAO, IFOAM, and UNCTAD in addressing this global problem through the International Task Force on Harmonization and Equivalency in Organic Agriculture (ITF). This 4-year initiative has produced a number of useful ideas on improving the regulation of organic agriculture.
The IOAS also is contributing to the overall harmonization effort by offering training courses to government authorities, national accreditors, certification body managers, quality managers, and inspection and certification personnel. One has just been completed in Switzerland and more will be offered in 2008. The IOAS fraud detection and prevention initiative, launched this month (October 2007), will determine methods retailers could undertake to identify fraudulently traded organic products and to increase the chances of early detection of fraud taking place within the retail supply chain.
One evaluation, many accreditations
A new and promising approach designed to reduce disharmony, and one the IOAS is developing and demonstrating, is the “one evaluation, many accreditations” model. It seeks to find a way through the maze of regulations and standards and provide cost and time savings to certification without diminishing in any way the quality of the work involved.
The IOAS has been demonstrating this by developing links with country specific accreditation bodies and government authorities to try to reduce duplication of effort on assessment of certifiers. The IOAS now shares audits with other accreditors and performs assessments for government authorities to reduce the surveillance burden on the certifiers. Further development and expansion of these initiatives is expected.
The national accreditation body model is somewhat different then model of a private sector international body like the IOAS. As you well know when the national accreditation bodies verify the work of various certifiers, there is still the need to determine that these national bodies are judging and monitoring the requirements for certification in a common way. They have attempted to overcome any disparity by forming associations, agreeing on interpretive documents, and signing multilateral agreements based on peer assessment.
With one international accreditation body like the IOAS, there is no need for this and certifier can be confident that the assessment criteria are applied consistently wherever the certifying body may be located. This is an obvious harmonizing force.
The second difference specific to IFOAM accreditation is that the IFOAM norms include a base technical standard for organic production. This means the certifying body must utilize a standard that complies with the IFOAM basic standard and its compliance is checked as part of the assessment and surveillance work of the IOAS. This provides a common baseline for operators working worldwide and is a further harmonizing force.
The technical standard is not assessed in the accreditation process carried out by national accreditation bodies. The process just ensures that the certification body is competent to apply the reference standard whether it is a regulatory norm such as the EU regulation 2092/91 or a private standard. IFOAM accreditation applies an additional level of harmonization by providing a guarantee not only of competence but that the applied standards are to a certain level.
The IOAS has taken the position that this approach functions well enough for certification bodies within the system and could, and should, be more widely adopted. The simple reason for less than complete adoption is the unwillingness of governments, certification bodies, and operators to reference an international standard such as the IFOAM norms even though IFOAM is recognized formally by the International Standards Organization (ISO) as an international standard setter.
The IOAS database
In order to be able to move toward the “one assessment, many decisions” model and respond to the needs of certification bodies in demonstrating compliance with many different requirements, the IOAS has developed a surveillance system centered on a database of the main reference document.
Starting earlier this year, the IOAS is offering assessments to certification bodies to a number of regulations, including the EU, the new Canadian regulations, and to IFOAM norms. Others such the NOP and JAS could be done, but only if there is interest from the authorities in the U.S. and Japan in recognizing the harmonizing power of using IOAS services.
This “one assessment, many decisions” model places the IOAS in the role of assessor but not necessarily the final accreditation decision maker. It is anticipated that authorities will continue to want to maintain that role. This approach effectively places the process of certification assessment in the hands of international experts but leaves approval or accreditation decisions to regulatory authorities. The result is appropriate expertise applied but sovereignty and responsibility maintained.
The database developed by the IOAS sets up a combined questionnaire that covers requirements of more than one norm or regulation without repeating the same requirements twice. The IOAS evaluator then performs a document review as normal, entering responses directly into the database. Once finished, reports on compliance with both sets of requirements are possible. Site visits are conducted with combined checklists to ensure that all the issues are covered comprehensively.
Any certification body, whether IFOAM-accredited or not, may additionally opt to have its own private standards and quality system entered into the IOAS database. This would allow for on demand comparisons with any other regulation or private standard in the database system.
Similar services will also be available for regulators in preparing side-by-side comparisons of regulations for country-to-country equivalence discussions. This IOAS database of regulations and standards will be kept current, providing a continuous source of up-to-date information.
In summary, although the international concept of accreditation championed by IFOAM remains relevant and a goal for the future, the IOAS is adapting to the reality of a disjointed regulatory and private standard world. The tools the IOAS has developed will provide transparency between different certification body requirements and technical standards and will provide decision makers in both the public and private sectors the necessary information on which to judge compliance and equivalency.
At the same time it has the potential to reduce duplication of effort on approval and surveillance, thereby decreasing the time certification bodies have to spend fielding questions from accreditation bodies and authorities and ultimately reduce the cost of certification to organic operators. Certification bodies have had to entertain numerous costly visits from authorities and others. Now it can be done in just one visit. The future is one visit, multiple approvals.