The board of the National Organic Program’s Accredited Certifiers Association (ACA) and the International Organic Inspectors Association (IOIA) have convened five working committees developing timelines for solutions/processes in this time of Covid-19 to ensure organic integrity is maintained in all certified organic products. Five of these participating certifiers certify in Canada to COR as well.
They will address the following areas for support and communication needed in order to conduct organic
- Justification and Risk Assessment
- Remote Audit Process and Software
- Non-technical Communities/Operators
- Inspector Support Best Practices
- Local Network Inspectors
The central goal is the evolution of the processes used by the organic sector, to maintain organic integrity given current and changing distancing and travel recommendations.
While one committee is developing Best Practices for remote audits, including the most secure platforms for uploading documents, most certifiers are busy developing additional Risk Assessment tools to determine whether clients are eligible as low-risk operators for virtual or remote audits.
Certifiers and inspectors want to be able to assure consumers the organic integrity of products can
be maintained when known organic operations are inspected with the Best Practices agreed upon. One
technique is to expand the risk assessments of all operations applying for compliance recognition. Some
existing schemes, such as the Global Organic Textile Standards, can provide guidance, as they already
have protocols for conducting remote inspections.
It is likely both the inspector and the operator will be required to sign affidavits stating they have the capacity to conduct remote audits. These procedures are stop-gap measures in order to avoid the risks associated with on-site inspections during this pandemic. Best practices lists will identify uniform approaches within which flexibility can be exercised. The uniformity of best practices will help operators, inspectors, and certifiers know how to proceed in
The IOIA Canadian Committee representatives, met with Canadian certifiers on their quarterly Canadian Food Inspection Agency call April 2, 2020. We discussed the future of IOIA online webinar trainings to promote uniformity in verification audits. IOIA is also hosting Weekly Town Hall meetings to share resources between inspectors, including developing training on Best Practices. Discussions are animated around methods for conducting virtual audits using growers’ cell phone or tablet cameras and interview processes, once a certifier has given approval for an assignment to be conducted virtually. Visit www.ioia. net for the Town Hall link to participate if you are a verification officer and member of IOIA. The web site also offers Coping with Covid-19 Updates.
Contributions from some certifiers to the ACA-IOIA committees include identifying an initial set of operations and inspectors prepared for conducting remote inspections, identifying new considerations for remote audit reports, and additional items needing to be verified because of the remote context.
One committee is working with best practices for remote audits with farms having no internet or technology; these would include growers like the Amish and small-scale Grower Groups. In some cases, they are encouraging growers to enlist help from techsavvy family or neighbours who might be able to assist with virtual inspection technology.
There has been discussion of working with drones to visually verify livestock and fields, but the learning curve for operation skill is extremely steep, and usually involves several crashes. Subcontracting with drone pilots in various geographic groupings might be a realistic option.
This crisis will continue to promote open communication between organic certifiers in both Canada and the United States which helps to prevent fraud. Ultimately, it may also lead to reducing the carbon footprint of organic verification!
Options for Financial Support
Increase or establish organic certification cost-share assistance for certified organic farms and handlers and provide immediate payment to organic operations. Consider making payments directly to organic certification agencies to cover their costs of certifying organic operations so that organic farmers and handlers do not have to bear that cost during these extreme times of market disruption.
Some certifiers are sending advance payments (a percentage based on previous inspection costs, excluding expenses) to contracted verification officers having lost income potential given delayed inspections. This helps to bridge the income gap and respects the value of verification officers —important human capital in the certification regime.
It has been suggested that a shared IOIA-ACA administrator could approach successful organic brands for grants for human capital investment, which could be very helpful in addressing the immediate income shortfalls. ACAs could also cover the costs of webinar inspector training, platforms and networking services, including inspectors in subscriptions, and allowing for additional costs to be added to independent inspectors’ fee schedules, which may have already been signed.
Certifiers have budgeted for conferences and activities that have been cancelled due to the pandemic. Those funds might now be re-allocated to offer advances or grants or loans to verification officers in need. Perhaps CBs could offer more remote paid mass balance training for example or contract risk assessment review work to appropriate inspectors. Partnering local inspectors with limited “on the ground” work, with more experienced inspectors who do the desk audits, is a hybrid approach being explored for higher risk new clients.
All in all, critical thinking and creative ideas are being shared in ongoing processes to continue with our common goals in guaranteeing organic integrity in all North American organic products!
Janine Gibson is an independent organic crop, livestock and process inspector with 30 years’ experience promoting more resilient solutions to food production management. She is board liaison for the Canadian Committee of the IOIA.