By ThanhVan Cao, ASC Senior Standards & Certification Coordinator
I am relatively new to the ASC, so I still have the benefit of an ‘external’ view of the business. Currently I am carrying out an assessment of ASC’s standard setting and assurance activities against the ISEAL Codes of Good Practice.
Meeting widely recognised requirements
The ASC standards as well as the certification programme are developed and implemented according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) and ISEAL Alliance guidelines. ISEAL is a membership organisation for sustainability standards; to become a member we must demonstrate that ASC meets the ISEAL Codes of Good Practice and accompanying requirements.
This means that the ASC standards and certification process must abide by ISEAL’s credibility principles and have effective systems in place covering standard-setting, impact evaluation and assurance. For example, ASC’s standards enshrine multi-stakeholder engagement and transparent processes.
ASC is currently an associate member of ISEAL and in the process of becoming a full member. This is the basis for the assessment that I am working on: gathering evidence to demonstrate ASC’s compliance with the ISEAL Code of Good Practice for standard setting, together with showing how it meets other requirements for assurance processes, monitoring and evaluation.
Impartiality through independent assessment
‘Impartiality’ is one of ISEAL’s credibility principles. This principle is at the core of how ASC functions. ASC operates as an independent, third-party certification programme to ensure the highest level of impartiality.
Independent third party auditors audit farms against ASC’s standards to assess whether they are operating responsibly. The certification body (Conformity Assessment Body – CAB) must be accredited by Accreditation Services International (ASI). ASI assesses the CAB against ASC’s certification and accreditation requirements. This assessment includes annual evaluations of the accredited CABs and the audits that they perform.
Only farms that are certified by a CAB accredited by ASI are eligible to sell ASC certified product into a recognised chain of custody.
Instead of working with multiple accreditation bodies, ASC has exclusive collaboration with ASI, which itself has to follow the good practices set out in the ISO/IEC 17011 and ISEAL Assurance Code.
The value of working with only one accreditation body is the consistency it provides when assessing CABs and the competence of their auditors across the countries in which they operate. At the same time, it is also more effective for the ASC’s learning process as a standard setting organisation; information coming from different channels (certifiers, stakeholders and farms) is funneled through one hub (ASI) and distilled in valuable lessons to continuously improve the ASC programme.
Publicly available information
In line with the credibility principle of ‘transparency’ ASC publicly shares a wealth of information, including governance details and audit reports.
On the ASC website you can find minutes of all the governance bodies’ meetings, such as the Technical Advisory Group (TAG), Steering Committees and Working Groups.
All of ASI’s accreditation assessments and ASC farm audits are announced in advance on respective ASI and ASC websites.
Stakeholders have at least 30 days in which to comment before a farm assessment is carried out. The draft audit report is prepared by the assessor and is then posted on ASC’s website for public comment for ten days, after which the report is finalised taking account of feedback before being made publicly available on the ASC website.
This practice goes beyond the requirements of ISEAL, which includes, as guidance for optional practices, providing a summary of the final report. However, for ASC, it is important that we have a procedure which allows stakeholders not only to provide their inputs to the assessment and decision-making process, but also for them to object to the certification decision if they have reason(s) to do so.
When I started, to be honest, I was actually wondering who would take the time to read all those long reports. But this is important to our stakeholders; they really care, read the reports and contribute to the process by sending in their comments. This exemplifies the real value and essence of a transparent process.
Despite the ASC programme only being in operation since 2012, I think it’s on a good track to demonstrate its credibility.