Whether it’s going to far-flung lands or just the neighbouring country, we all need a passport to travel. But what about products? How do bananas from Costa Rica get through customs in France? Or watches from Switzerland get past border control in Australia? Their “papers” are often in the form of documents such as certificates that prove they have passed the various rules and requirements of their new country. International standards can help smooth the “immigration” process and are therefore a “passport to trade”.
Take the tasty mango for example. Importing it into the EU is duty-free for all countries, but it needs to comply with a wide range of measures, known as non-tariff measures or NTMs, for which the exporter must provide adequate proof. Add to that any extra requirements by the buyer, such as evidence that the product is organic or fair trade, and the exporter has quite some work to do.
But with internationally recognized tests, inspections and certificates, backed up by a system of accreditation, businesses can not only reduce the costs of meeting these requirements but also increase trade opportunities.
Research done by Accredia, the Italian Accreditation Body, showed that businesses with accredited certification saw productivity gains of 30 % to 60 % through entering global value chains. It also stated that “the development of common standards, supported by mutual recognition of accredited test results, inspection reports and certificates provide simplification and reductions in the cost of commerce”.
But what is accreditation and how does the system work? The journey starts with conformity assessment.
Conformity assessment is the collective term for the processes that show a product meets the requirements of something, such as a standard, that is needed in order to meet a regulation or customer expectations. It not only gives the product the necessary “papers” to get across the border, it gives consumers and regulators confidence that certain regulations are met. The organizations that carry out conformity assessment procedures are known as conformity assessment bodies (CABs).
Accreditation is the independent evaluation of CABs against recognized standards to ensure their results are credible and trusted. Accreditation is performed by accreditation bodies. Those accreditation bodies that have been evaluated by peers as competent can sign arrangements amongst themselves that then increase the acceptance of products and services that are traded internationally, saving exporters the trouble of different tests for different countries.
The International Accreditation Forum (IAF) manages these arrangements if they are in the field of management systems, products, services, personnel and related conformity assessment programmes. The International Laboratory Accreditation Cooperation (ILAC) is responsible when it comes to laboratory and inspection accreditation.
The World Trade Organization (WTO) is aware, however, that all this testing and assessing can incur costs for the exporter, which can be a barrier to trade. To deal with these difficulties, all WTO members are signatories to the WTO Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT Agreement). The Agreement strongly encourages members to use international standards as a means to facilitate trade because they harmonize the requirements across countries, reducing duplication and providing transparency.
The TBT Agreement states that “verified compliance, for instance through accreditation, with relevant guides or recommendations issued by international standardizing bodies shall be taken into account as an indication of [the CAB’s] adequate technical competence”.
So what standards ensure a CAB is competent and trusted? ISO has a range of standards designed precisely for the accreditation of CABs, developed by ISO’s committee on conformity assessment (CASCO). Many of them are published jointly by ISO and ISO’s standardization partner, the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC). Together, these standards make up the “CASCO Toolbox”.
The toolbox is developed with stakeholders from all over the world and includes the contribution of the IAF and the ILAC, key ISO partners.
The most widely used example is ISO/IEC 17025, General requirements for the competence of testing and calibration laboratories, which is the international reference for testing and calibration laboratories wishing to demonstrate they deliver trusted results.
The range also includes ISO/IEC 17020, Conformity assessment – Requirements for the operation of various types of bodies performing inspection; the ISO/IEC 17021 series, Conformity assessment – Requirements for bodies providing audit and certification of management systems; and ISO/IEC 17065, Conformity assessment – Requirements for bodies certifying products, processes and services.
An example of how this works in practice is Energy Star, which is one of the world’s best-recognized labels of energy efficiency. Launched as a voluntary labelling scheme by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1992, it expanded rapidly to become a common benchmark for nearly every household in the US. However, an audit conducted by the US Government Accountability Office reported that while no fraud was discovered, it was largely a self-certification programme and thus open to abuse.
To remove this potential vulnerability, the EPA implemented a conformity assessment regime in 2011, meaning that in order to carry the Energy Star label, products must be tested in an EPA laboratory and be reviewed by an EPA-recognized certification body. To become EPA-recognized, laboratories need to be accredited to ISO/IEC 17025, the international reference for testing laboratories. Certification bodies need to be accredited to ISO/IEC 17065.
A further condition was that those bodies providing accreditation to ISO/IEC 17025 and ISO/IEC 17065 needed to be a signatory to the relevant ILAC Mutual Recognition Agreement or the IAF’s Multilateral Recognition Arrangement. And to do that, the accrediting body needed to be peer-evaluated to ISO/IEC 17011, Conformity assessment – Requirements for accreditation bodies accrediting conformity assessment bodies.
Thanks to the international acceptance of these standards, the EPA was able to establish its own partnership arrangements with countries such as Canada, Japan, the EU, Switzerland, Australia and New Zealand, resulting in greater acceptance of Energy Star-labelled products globally and thus greater sales.
Brahim Houla, IAF Communication and Marketing Committee Chair, said that with regulators, industries and consumers adopting an increasingly global outlook, the need for compatibility of conformity assessment regimes between international economies is a crucial aspect of trade.
“Without this, the unnecessary duplication of already satisfactorily completed testing could result in unnecessary delays at the point of entry – a potential deal breaker for time-critical services and perishable goods,” he said.
Jon Murthy, the ILAC Marketing and Communications Committee Chair, added that internationally recognized agreements provide assurance that CABs in different economies are operating to the same internationally accepted standards.
“The system of mutual recognition of conformity assessment through the IAF and ILAC agreements promotes the system of ʻonce tested to an international standard, the results are accepted everywhereʼ.”
Food and agricultural producers are another area where conformity assessment plays a crucial role in facilitating international trade. Being a highly regulated industry, having credible certification that their products meet national or international regulations is not only mandatory but also a significant business cost.
According to a recent survey by the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI), 79 % of companies view food safety certification as a great advantage and a “passport to trade” in business. Improved ability to comply with regulations (86 %) is the highest-rated benefit of certification, with improved food safety and food quality coming in second.
The GFSI is an internationally operating non-profit organization that aims to advance food safety worldwide to build consumer trust and increase efficiency across the industry. It has a system of recognizing certification programmes against its benchmarking requirements. A certification programme owner wishing to be recognized must work with certification bodies accredited to ISO/IEC 17065 or ISO/IEC 17021.
While getting certified or accredited by recognized programmes and bodies might be feasible for large organizations, the reality is that many internationally traded products, such as fruit and vegetables, are produced by smallholder farms in developing countries. Meeting what are often rigorous requirements on the international market is no easy task.
Thankfully, a number of schemes are in place to help them make the jump. One such scheme is the Standards and Trade Development Facility (STDF), a WTO-led global partnership that helps developing countries access international markets by tackling sanitary and phytosanitary gaps. One of those ways is through helping them implement relevant international standards.
The results speak for themselves. Working with small-scale fruit and vegetable producers, processors and traders in Thailand and Vietnam, they helped a Vietnamese exporter gain certification to ISO 22000 for food safety management systems.
“Being part of the STDF project was a game changer for my company,” said the exporter. “It was the springboard to get HACCP [an international food safety standard] and ISO 22000 certification. This enabled us to export fruit and vegetables to the EU, Japan and the US.”
Referencing international standards in non-tariff measures, then, can lower costs for producers by removing the need to duplicate testing and certification procedures to meet the different requirements of the domestic and foreign markets.
What’s more, accreditation and conformity assessment has been proven to improve economies through facilitating trade and instilling confidence in products and services. This has certainly been the case for New Zealand, for example, where research has been conducted by NZIER, a specialist consulting firm, which shows that accreditation facilitates over 56 % of total goods exports, with a value of 27.6 billion New Zealand dollars.
From enjoying tasty mangoes in Iceland to boosting national economies, the benefits of conformity assessment in international trade are clear. Testing of goods is done correctly, and everyone trusts the results. And everyone gets to enjoy mangoes. Every day.
By Clare Naden