Last month we published a new process for variance requests to the ASC standards. I will admit that doesn’t sound like the most interesting publication in the world, but before you look away I’d like to explain why this process is such an exciting development for the ASC programme, and the hard work we put in to get here.
By Javier Unibazo, ASC Head of Standards
Let’s start with what a variance request is. ASC is a global certification programme which is of course key to our mission to drive up standards in aquaculture around the world. But what that also means is our standards are applied to farms that are operating in all kinds of different conditions. The ASC standards are incredibly thorough but they can’t account for every possible circumstance, so how can we ensure they can apply to some of these variable conditions?
This is where variance requests come in. If it’s not possible to apply a certain requirement to a farm without amending it in some way, a variance request can be made. Crucially, they are not there to allow auditors or farms to reduce the strength of ASC standards, but to ensure those strong standards can be applied in diverse circumstances.
Variance requests are so important that they are actually a requirement for all members of the ISEAL Alliance, the member organisation of the world’s most credible certification schemes. ASC is the only aquaculture certification scheme to be a member of ISEAL and we agree with the importance they place on variance requests. Global certification schemes must be flexible as well as robust.
Consistent and inclusive
So what are we changing? The new process has a number of benefits, but what I’d like to focus on in particular is how we’re planning to involve stakeholders – like NGOs or local communities – in decisions about these variance requests.
Stakeholder engagement is really important to us at ASC. All of our standards were developed by large multi-stakeholder groups representing the expertise and experience of scientists, NGOs, farmers, retailers, and more. The seafood industry includes a lot of different actors and if we want to drive up standards we need to bring them all with us. We already include stakeholder consultation in a lot of our processes such as standard reviews or farm certification, and this new process makes it even easier for stakeholders to have a say on variance requests to our standards. Not only will stakeholders be proactively asked to give their feedback on a new variance request, they will also be able to provide feedback on previous variance requests, which can be reassessed by ASC if necessary.
The new process for variance requests to ASC standards allows variances to be requested in a way that is consistent, inclusive, and requires that all decisions are the result of a technical analysis. This analysis will be carried out taking into account stakeholder input, and will be presented to the VR Committee, made up of independent members of the ASC’s Technical Advisory Group with additional independent oversight.
Making the most of varied expertise
Given the focus on stakeholder involvement, you won’t be surprised to hear that we developed this new process with a lot of input from stakeholders – including producers, auditors, and NGOs. It’s easy to ask for feedback, of course, but at ASC we take notice of what that feedback is, and we made a number of changes to this process based on the different feedback we got. As I said, the seafood industry includes a lot of different actors and they all have their own areas of experience and expertise, so it makes sense to make the most out of that.
We have now published the new process but it doesn’t go live until December 15 2020. This is to give Conformity Assessment Bodies (CABs) and auditors plenty of time to familiarise themselves with the new process.
It’s also worth noting that we also published a new process for variance requests to the ASC’s Certification and Accreditation Requirements (CAR). This might be a bit too technical for a blog, but the CAR is essentially the document which sets out requirements for auditors, ensuring they evaluate ASC’s standards in a consistent manner. Because these requests are relating to the auditor process rather than the ASC standards themselves, they do not need the same level of stakeholder consultation, but this new process improves consistency and is another important document for auditors to familiarise themselves with before December 15.
This is a complicated topic, so if you have made it to the end then well done! Even if you don’t remember exactly what a variance request is, I hope I’ve managed to explain how important it is to us that we ensure stakeholders get to have a say whenever possible in the ASC programme.