Organic certification expert
Here, organic certification expert Gwendolyn Wyard at Oregon Tilth, Inc. explains the role of certifiers in the organic system and provides a behind-the-scenes look at the work they do to promote and protect organic integrity.
Q: What is the role of a certifier in the organic system?
A: A certifier, such as Oregon Tilth, is an independent third-party organization, accredited by the USDA National Organic Program (NOP), that evaluates operations, such as farms, processing facilities or grocery stores, for compliance with the organic regulations. Unlike the USDA, which develops, administers and enforces the regulations, the certifier carries out certification through an annual application and on-site inspection process.
Q: What do certifiers look for when they inspect organic operations? What criteria do they use to determine whether an operation should be granted organic certification or not?
A: Certifiers evaluate all aspects of an operation to the organic requirements set forth in the federal regulations. The certifier makes a certification decision based on: 1) information provided in the operator’s application or Organic Systems Plan, which describes how they will comply with the regulations; and 2) the inspection report and associated documents generated from the on-site inspection.
Q: How frequently do certifiers perform inspections, and are these inspections always announced?
A: Organic certifiers conduct annual inspections of all their certified clients. Inspections verify, through on-site review of actual activities and corresponding records that the operations are in compliance with the relevant organic standards. Every USDA-accredited certification agency must conduct annual inspections. Organic certifiers may also conduct unannounced inspections on a portion of all their clients each year.
Q: Companies pay certifiers like Oregon Tilth to perform inspections. How, then, can consumers be sure that these inspections are objective and trustworthy? Is there anyone who oversees the certifiers and ensures that their reports are accurate?
A: The certification process for a certified operator (i.e.: a farm or processing plant) is divided into three stages: an initial application review, the on-site inspection, and a final review decision. For an additional layer of transparency, a copy of the inspection report is provided to the operator along with the certification decision. Finally, the inspector does not make the certification decision. The decision to certify the operation is made by a person different from those who conducted the review of documents and on-site inspection.
The USDA, via accreditation, oversees this process and associated paperwork; and the certifier therefore undergoes a similar process to be accredited. During on-site USDA audits, the auditors intensely scrutinize the inspection reports and the decisions derived from those reports.
Q: What, if any, steps do certifiers have to take maintain their accreditation?
A:NOP accreditation is valid for a 5-year period. During that time, certifiers must annually submit a lengthy report that includes a list of all staff and contractors used in the certification process, including their qualifications, training and evaluations. They must also provide copies of all internal policies and procedures, which demonstrate how their certification process meets the quality system outlined in the regulations to ensure there is authenticity behind the "organic" label. Additionally, certifiers receive on-site audits as part of maintaining accreditation. While the regulations require a minimum of one site audit per 5-year period, the USDA NOP has currently been doing an average of two site audits per 5 years. Accreditation site audits are an intensive process, involving observation by USDA auditors of actual inspections and audit of files at our certification office.
Q: Given the findings of the Inspector General’s report earlier this year, which recommended greater oversight of certifying agents and stricter enforcement of organic regulations, should consumers still trust the organic system?
A: The Inspector General's report showed there are opportunities for continued improvement. Although the certification and accreditation system isn't perfect, it's still one of the best systems available to ensure a label claim has meaning and authenticity behind it. It is one of the best systems because it is supported by transparency, annual on-site inspections, detailed records and audit trails. Enhanced oversight and enforcement will serve to further bolster the well-deserved reputation of organic certification as a valuable and trustworthy label in the marketplace.
About Gwendolyn Wyard
Gwendolyn Wyard has been actively working in the organic industry for 15 years. Gwendolyn received her certificate as an independent farm and processing inspector through the Independent Organic Inspector’s Association (IOIA) in 1997. Afterwards, she worked as a subcontractor for multiple certifiers, inspecting diverse organic operations ranging from papaya farms in Hawaii to coffee roasting facilities in L.A.
In June of 2003, Gwendolyn completed a degree in Food Science from Oregon State University with a Fermentation Science Option and a minor in Chemistry. Shortly after graduating, Gwendolyn went to work full time with Oregon Tilth, Inc. where she currently serves as the Processing Program Technical Specialist. In this capacity, she works with approximately 600 certified processors throughout the US and internationally, assisting clients through the certification process and reviewing their operations for compliance with the National Organic Program Regulations. She applies her food science background and expertise to provide policy analysis and technical review of materials for use in organic products.