Organic certification: Room for improvement

organic certification

The European organic certification system

Scientists and certification experts from seven European countries have been engaged in a research project, investigating the EU’s organic certification system and ways to optimise it. They identified numerous opportunities for improvement at all levels.

After the recent case of fraud with organic products in Italy in December 2011 there have been numerous press reports discussing the European organic certification system. These highlighted the fact that a criminal group declared conventional products as being organic over several years and sold these products, worth many million Euros, to other European countries. This event has raised questions and public concern about the quality of the European organic certification system.

Over the past three years a group of scientists and certification experts from seven European countries (Germany, Denmark, the Czech Republic, the United Kingdom, Italy, Switzerland and Turkey) have been investigating this system. Coordinated by the University of Hohenheim and funded by the European Commission, the CERTCOST project has extensively analysed the organic certification system and the research team has come up with recommendations for making the system more efficient and robust.

Certification systems can be judged on three main criteria:

quality, cost and subsidiarity.

Quality: it is important that an organic certification system is able to guarantee the physical integrity of the product. The consumer must be able to trust that the production process follows organic standards. But it is not feasible to provide a 100% guarantee. Such a system would not be affordable. A good organic certification system should reduce the cases of non-compliance to the absolute minimum and communicate the reasons for these to consumers. When such cases occur, the organic certification bodies and public authorities should be able to react convincingly and clearly. A good organic certification system should be constantly evolving and improving, be transparent and communicate well with consumers (e.g. with the appropriate logos).

Cost (and the efficient use of resources): the cost of the European organic certification system was estimated to be at least € 70 to 110 Million a year (EU-27 in 2008). That is between 0.4 to 0.6 percent of the total revenue of organic sales in the EU. This money needs to be spent in a way that achieves the quality goals described above.

Subsidiarity: a variety of stakeholders are involved in an organic control system: Certification bodies, accreditation agencies, national authorities and the EU Commission, with the involvement of two different Directorate-Generals: Agriculture and Rural Development (DG AGRI) and Health and Consumers (DG SANCO). Responsibilities within the system should be distributed to optimise the interactions between different participating organisations and institutions and provide the best possible system.

Recommendations for improvement

Based on these criteria, extensive analysis and many workshops with representatives of the organic certification system, the CERTCOST project identified the following six-point plan to improve the system:

1. Harmonise the supervision of the certification system, approval of control bodies and data collection. At the EU level, the different types of non-compliance with the regulations for organic farming should be clearly defined and the sanctions should be standardised. The organic regulation distinguishes between ‘irregularities’ and ‘infringements’, but does not explicitly define these terms or the difference between them. Data collection on irregularities, infringements and structural data about the operators involved in organic production, processing and trading should be based on uniform definitions. A Europe-wide annual monitoring report should be produced by the European Commission and made publicly available. The report should allow for a meaningful comparison of the implementation of the EU’s organic farming regulations in the different member states. The last published monitoring report was released in 2007 and, consequently, is out of date. This report also states that ‘it is still difficult to reach a clear conclusion as different definitions of the parameters and different data acquisition methods are used by the Member States’. It would be useful to harmonise the requirements for the accreditation of control bodies in the Member States and there should be more supervision of certification in third countries.

2. Further develop the use of risk-based inspection systems. The development of quantitative systems of risk-based inspection systems should be supported by additional research and development. The inspection systems should collect comprehensive data on organic operators. Modern and sophisticated statistical analysis methods can be applied to this data to identify companies with a high risk of non-compliance with the regulations. Organic certification should be more firmly based on a broader understanding of risk. This should not only aim to minimise the possibility of non-compliance, but also aim to avoid the damage that non-compliance causes to the market and consumer trust. Some control bodies already practice this, for example by increasing their controls on companies with a large market share. Control bodies should introduce and/or improve their risk-based systems. These risk-based systems should increase controls on operators considered to be a high risk, and reduce controls on operators who pose a low risk. At present all operators are inspected at least once a year and only companies thought to be a high risk more often. The general design requirements for risk-based inspection systems should be defined at the EU level, but the detailed design should be left to the control bodies.

3. Raise consumer awareness of – and trust in – organic certification logos. Consumer trust in the new EU logo should be strengthened through appropriate communications. Where possible, synergies between public campaigns and the activities of private companies should be sought. The current activities to inform consumers about the new EU logo are not enough. Consumers still place more trust in the national logos, which they are more familiar with and are more willing to pay a premium for products that carry these logos. Use of these logos should continue until the new EU logo enjoys a similar trust. There are very different perceptions of private logos and consumer willingness to pay for these products varies accordingly. Politicians should refrain from direct interventions in this sector. It would be wise for the owners of these private logos to critically examine the value of their logo in the long run.

4. Strengthen the institutional basis of the system. The existing system with private control bodies, public control authorities or a combination of both should be kept, as it provides Member States with a choice of institutional arrangements. The regulations currently allocate many tasks to the EU Commission. Consideration should be given as to whether the relevant units of the Commission have sufficient available resources to fulfil these tasks. Consideration should also be given to intensifying cooperation between the relevant units of DG AGRI and DG SANCO. Member States should check whether they can improve the distribution of the tasks between different government agencies and other stakeholders. In addition the different stakeholders should be more actively involved in the whole system, for example by creating a platform for control bodies and public authorities to share knowledge.

5. Increase transparency and enhance the provision of information to organic operators. Information on the web directed at organic operators should be offered in the respective languages of the member states. Control bodies should be encouraged to display their prices on their websites in order to increase transparency about the cost of certification. The EU’s current website (, should be developed further.

6. Invest in the knowledge system: a European forum (e.g. regular conferences) should be established to provide a continuous and structured exchange of information on the implementation of the EU regulations on organic farming. This should involve stakeholders in all member states and should (at least) be co-financed by the EU. In addition special training for the different groups involved in the implementation of the system, is needed. The trainers of such trainings (at least) should be trained at the European level, an important element in harmonising implementation between Member States.

Ensure credibility

The recent case of fraud in Italy clearly shows that the organic certification system has weak points. Even if a completely foolproof system can never be guaranteed improvements are necessary. CERTCOST’s six-point plan clearly shows how the problems can be addressed and how the organic certification system could be improved. Implementation of these suggestions is now in the hands of the governmental and private institutions involved in the certification system. Standardising the monitoring done by the various supervisory authorities in Europe would be a first important step. Equally important is the monitoring of national authorities by the European Commission – essential for establishing a level playing field. If the weaknesses in the current system are addressed diligently, consumer trust in the credibility of organic products can be sustained in the long run.

This article is based upon:

Stephan Dabbert (2011): IMPROVING THE ORGANIC CERTIFICATION SYSTEM. Recommendations from the CERTCOST project. Stuttgart Germany.

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