Four years ago, Vietnamese-born Vân Roetert joined the ASC, and in May last year she set up our programme assurance team to ensure that integrity was at the forefront of ASC’s agenda. We caught up with her to find out more about the work of her department.
By Nicki Holmyard
“Sustainability certification is a complex business requiring a multi-faceted approach to ensure the programme is meaningful, effective and robust, and this is at the core of what we do,” said Vân.
“The public just sees a label, perhaps without understanding the complexity of what happens behind the scenes. And what aquaculture businesses see from the outside is nothing compared to the huge machine that runs behind the ASC. My team is an important part of that.”
Is there such a thing as a typical day in her life?
“It’s hard to describe a typical day,” she laughed. “Every day is busy, and I give 110% to my job to ensure I keep on top of everything. I love my work because it satisfies the curiosity and passion I have for the industry. Every issue is so different and there is rarely a ready-made solution for anything. This mean that a lot of research is involved, often in collaboration with the Standards and Science teams, to ensure we come up with appropriate answers.”
Vân heads up a team of people based across the globe; including in Vietnam, the US, Australia, and the main office in the Netherlands, where she is based.
“We spend large amounts of time interacting with different people, dealing with enquiries and queries from farms themselves, from accredited certification bodies and their auditors, and from different stakeholders regarding the programme. ASC is global, so on any day we might be speaking to someone in Norway, Canada, Chile, Australia ….” said Vân
For example, a farmer or company might have a query about a particular aspect of ASC certification requirements to get their farm certified, or need help understanding how to comply with the rules of the scheme. She confessed that the language of the ASC documents pertaining to standards and certification requirements is very technical, and necessarily so, and that doesn’t always make it easy to interpret or understand. A degree of ambiguity can also be detected in those documents. Such issues are generally ironed out as the standards undergo regular updates, following stakeholder consultation, but in the meantime it keeps Vân and her team busy.
“That is why we are here – to ensure the language and issues are understood and interpreted in the correct way!” she said.
“One of the trickier things we do is explaining how to apply our standard and certification requirements in a special context, and this can take some considerable research and discussion. The ASC programme and its certification standards are designed for global application, but that can create difficulties, as no two conditions are the same in different countries. This means that we often need to look at how a standard can be applied in the context of a particular country or region.”
Vân starts her week with a planned group communication meeting, which helps to set out work priorities and responsibilities, update everyone on the current status of projects, and ensure that all bases are covered.
“I also speak daily with different members of the team about various topics. Quite often a team approach is needed to bring some common sense to an issue, and it’s great to know that I have such good backup. In fact, working with my dedicated, passionate team is the best part of my job,” she said.
Recent issues which have taken a lot of time and resources include investigations related to product integrity, which mainly originate in Asia, particularly Vietnam. This means that Vân and her team need to ensure that a product is what it says it is on the label – and this is not always found to be the case – that antibiotics are not being used in the production process, and that raw materials are not substituted during processing.
“We might receive a report from supply chain partners, or find the product ourselves, then we have to initiate a full investigation, follow all the leads and undertake the detective work. There will always be people who think they can cheat the system, generally for financial reasons, but we are getting better and better at spotting it and stopping them, and this is a very rewarding part of my work,” said Vân.
“The workload of my department has certainly grown since it was set up. When ASC started, the focus was on establishing the programme and publicising its availability to partners and stakeholders. The next phase was to expand that focus slightly towards maintaining confidence that the ASC Standards are effectively implemented and audited,” she said.
This work includes continuously improving ASC certification and accreditation methodologies to add more value to stakeholders, training auditors to ensure they understand ASC requirements, monitoring the performance of auditors and their certification bodies in conjunction with the accreditation body, working with MSC on Chain of Custody issues, and developing tools to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the programme.
“My team has developed a multisite certification methodology that will help companies with multiple sites to have everything linked under one certificate, instead of needing a certificate, and therefore an audit, for each site. We are also soon to launch the group certification tool, which will help farmer organisations and cooperatives to arrange their internal management systems to ensure that individual producers are compliant,” said Vân.
Another important and interesting area of work is the development of a standardised social auditing methodology for ASC, that will enable auditors to conduct the social part of an audit effectively and consistently.
Other tools under development include one to monitor suppliers’ performance in terms of product contaminated with antibiotics, and another to help consumers trace a product back to source and confirm its provenance.
Before joining ASC, Vân worked in a similar position for a coffee scheme, and whilst her former experience gave her useful insight into the workings of certification schemes, she admits that she is still learning about aquaculture and the wider seafood industry.
“It is a fascinating sector, so diverse and full of extraordinary characters, but it also incredibly complex,” she said.
One aspect of the job that frustrates Vân is dealing with an over expectation of what ASC can deliver, which is a view sometimes held within industry and the wider stakeholder group.
“Certification schemes are used as part of a risk mitigation tool, but sometimes companies think that achieving the standard is the ultimate goal and the work stops there. However, it doesn’t mean that they can ease up on due diligence in their sourcing policy for example, nor ignore ethical issues or social compliance. Having certification does not solve such issues, and so we work with the ASC communications, standards and commercial teams to help change perceptions and educate stakeholders to ensure that we are all singing from the same hymn sheet!” said Vân.