What is Organic Certification?
The Hong Kong Organic Resource Centre
Why Organic Certification?
The organic quality of any organic product cannot be verified by its appearance. In certain direct selling systems (like Community Supported Agriculture schemes), producers may have closer contact with their consumers or even plan, distribute, market and set prices together with their consumers to different extend. In these systems, consumers have good understanding of the production method of the operators. So, the producers may not need to make extra effort and the consumers may not need to pay more money for someone to verify the quality of the products whether they are true to the claim.
As distribution channel changed (i.e. via supermarket), or having geographic barriers (i.e. sell to farther areas), or base on other reasons, the “distance” between producers and consumers becomes wider apart, the need for a verification or certification system becomes higher. The certification may build trust between parties. It may help consumers in obtaining real organic products while protecting genuine organic farmers by avoiding fake products infringing their creditability and livelihood. Certification is a market instrument that allows producers to create and maintain a separate organic market, and thus may encourage more farmers to farm organically.
What is Organic Certification?
A certification is a system to confirm the conformity of certain products to a set of standard. Certification is not rare nowadays. Many products and services may be certified by various certification systems to provide quality guarantee, such as safety certification of electrical appliances, ISO product and service certification, or even vegetarian food certification. The certification is usually carried out by an independent third party, neither the supplier (the first party) nor the customers (the second party). The independent third party is neutral and has a balance of interests rather than being controlled by any one party.
Organic certification differs from other certification systems in their emphasis on the production system rather than the product itself. An organic product must be produced according to a set of production methods. For example, the material input applied must be organic, or natural or harmless to the environment; no damage to the environment during the production is allowed; organic and non-organic production must be separated; … etc. Only those product produced according to the standard can be claimed as organic. That is a more serious system than just ask if the product is free from certain prohibited materials.
Other product certification can be verified by used testing. But the “Organic” quality cannot be verified by just chemical testing. Testing, in some cases, may be used to detect non-compliance but is not sufficient to proof the compliance. If a product is produced
without any application of prohibited material, but the environment is damaged during the production process, then the product cannot be claimed as organic.
The primarily part of the organic certification is careful inspection of operation methods and comprehensive audit trail of production documents by some professionally trained inspectors. Their reports allow certification body to determine if the producer can be certified or not. When certain products are confirmed of their organic quality by a certifier, the producer may apply the seal of the certifier or the certification mark onto the products. The seal is to inform consumers that the operators are following the rules and the products are certified organic.
Local Organic Certification Systems
Some 43 countries have already developed their own organic standards and certification systems while 12 are at their stage of drafting. In Hong Kong, we have 3 sets of organic standards being developed by 3 organizations from 2000 to 2002. These 3 organizations are the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department, the Hong Kong Organic Farming Association and the Hong Kong Organic Certification Centre (formerly the Garden Farm) where the Hong Kong Organic Certification Centre provides certification services as well.
By the end of 2002, the Baptist University of Hong Kong, the Hong Kong Organic Farming Association and the Produce Green Foundation, with the funding supported from the Agricultural Development Fund of the Vegetable Marketing Organization, established the Hong Kong Organic Resource Centre for setting up a local organic standard and certification system by 2005 to promote the local organic movement.
The centre is formed with a Standard Board, a Certification Board and a Governing Board. Where the Standard Board sets organic standard, the Certification Board sets certification system and makes certification decisions while the Governing Board approves the standard and the certification system and to service as the final appeal body for certification decisions. Members of the Boards include farmers, processors/retailers, environmentalists/scientists, consumers/public interests, government, worthy personages and HKORC co-organizers.
At present, the centre has set its first organic standard after an extensive public consultation. It is now preparing all certification documents, and an inspector training. It is expected to carry out pilot certifications by the end of 2004. After fine tuning of the details, the certification system may possibly fully in place by the end of 2005. The certification will enhance the supply of healthy organic food of high quality and create an ecologically sound and harmonious environment for our next generations.