Agriculture, with its various food safety and sustainable production standards now required by many retailers, is not the only industry subject to standards. Hundreds of national and international standards exist relating to all types of products from electrical three-prong plugs to paper sizes.
International standards have been around for decades, says Ben Marchant, vice president of business development for NCSI Americas, Inc., the North American division of NCS International, a global certification body. “The idea back then was to develop standards to keep government out of industries and serve to level the playing field,” he said, adding that self-regulation is a popular concept overseas in business and manufacturing industries.
The roots of the International Organization for Standardization go back to 1926 when the International Federation of the National Standardizing Associations was formed to standardize the mechanical engineering world. It was reorganized in 1946.
“Standards do act as a great leveling tool,” said Marchant, adding that standards give customers a high level of assurance of product quality, product specification, and references. Customers know what to expect when purchasing materials, even if the company is from abroad.
But the rub for fresh produce growers and packers has been the proliferation of different standards required by food retailers. Instead of following one standard, such as GlobalGAP, an international standard for good agricultural practices widely recognized in Europe, several major U.S. retailers have essentially reinvented the wheel as they adopt their own program and audit requirements.
For several years, United Fresh Produce Association has worked with retailers and the produce industry to harmonize food safety programs used by U.S. retailers for produce. The goal was to avoid growers and shippers having to implement similar, yet different programs, each requiring a separate third-party audit. The result was development of the Produce Good Agricultural Practices Harmonized Food Safety Standards. Retailers are now in the process of signing on to the harmonized standards.
While international standards developed by ISO follow a thorough, thoughtful, and elaborate process, with public comments from all involved in the industry, the same is not so for private programs developed by retailers. “International standards must be open and allow for comments,” said Marchant. “They can’t be loaded, say, for example, created by retailers for retailers.”
For example, for GlobalGAP, half of their board represents growers, half retailers, he said, and changes to the GlobalGAP standards allow for member feedback and involvement.
The certification entities that provide third-party audit services go through a similar process that the international standards must go through. ISO Guide 65 specifies requirements for a third-party operating a product certification system.
“Third-party certification has been around for quite a long time,” he said, adding that the first generation of certification dates back to the late 1940s, while the current form of food safety certification programs began in the 1990s.
It would have been very difficult for ISO to develop the specialization needed to conduct a wide variety of inspection services, thus, it developed a standards guide for certification bodies, he explained.
Standards for third-party food safety auditors require tertiary education in the agriculture, experience, and training.
As more retailers require some form of a third-party audit, there is concern that there won’t be enough auditors for the industry in the next few years.
“As a certifying body, we try to forecast demand and plan for the coming year,” he said. “But it takes six months to train an auditor, so when a grower calls the week before requesting an auditor, it makes scheduling difficult.”
He encourages growers to book their audits early to ensure that demand for audits can be met.
Marchant spoke during the 108th annual meeting of the Washington State Horticultural Association.