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Certifications & Compliance: Why they matter


Certifications have become a way of life for many businesses in the produce industry. Intended to provide outside assurance of quality, practices, and standards within the industry, they can include a wide number of subjects and targets.

While some are directed at consumers and others at regulators and business-to-business operations, the number of certifications and compliance standards is steadily increasing.

Certifications have grown by type, region, and application almost twofold over the last decade, with no slowdown in sight as both consumer demand and government regulation expand.

Clearly, it’s a boom time for the certifying bodies themselves. The global value of food certification organizations is currently $5.6 billion and is estimated to climb to over $7 billion by 2028.

In organics, sales have increased from $3.2 billion in 2008—when data was first collected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS)—to over $11 billion in 2021. At present, there are 80 fruit and vegetable certifiers in the United States alone.

With a growing global market and produce being sourced from more countries than ever before, certification and compliance are here to stay and will only become a bigger share of the market in the future—and a bigger cost to producers.

Is it all worth it? What are the different types of compliance, what do they certify, and how do they impact the bottom line of produce companies?

Blueprints spoke to a number of industry insiders to help readers navigate the complexity of compliance and which certifications are right for which businesses. Types of certifications and compliance standards can be broken down into roughly three categories.

Safety First

The primary certification concern is food safety, an issue of paramount importance to regulators and consumers alike.

Food safety issues have driven demand for certification, both as governments seek to stop outbreaks of foodborne illness and as consumers seek to ensure the food they buy is safe, clean, and risk-free.

From an industry perspective, safety certifications can provide a boost to consumer confidence as well as protect companies from liability, government intervention, and the loss of revenue and reputation that can come from being associated with recalls and safety violations.

One major food safety certification is known as GlobalG.A.P., an extension of USDA’s voluntary Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) for farmers and growers in the United States. GlobalG.A.P. was established in Europe in the 1990s, expanded, and became recognized as a worldwide program of production standards

A major advantage of adopting such certifications is that it eases international trade by setting a baseline for items grown in different locations around the world. This is a crucial part of building confidence in the safety of produce throughout the supply chain.

“Certainly, standards such as GlobalG.A.P. help facilitate trade by establishing standards that suppliers meet and buyers expect,” says Minos Athanassiadis, vice president of iFoodDS, a provider of food safety and traceability solutions, and managing partner of Fresh Link Group, LLC, a consulting firm in Bakersfield, CA.

Such standards also provide workarounds in areas where regulation differs, or where there may not be common standards or an understanding of expectations.

“They help establish a benchmark for producers and assist foreign entities where there’s a lack of regulation,” says Jaclyn Bowen, executive director of the Clean Label Project. “Otherwise, producers would have to get approval one by one from many nations, making it cost-prohibitive to export.”

Bowen also notes that third-party certification groups accredited by such umbrella organizations as the International Accreditation Forum provide additional levels of confidence in a certification’s independence, integrity, and consistency.

Natalie Dyenson, chief of food safety and regulation for the International Fresh Produce Association (IFPA), compares the process of certification and compliance testing to the way doctors are certified by medical boards.

“Certifications are all about trust and validity,” she says of GlobalG.A.P. “From a food safety perspective, it has created benchmark requirements based on international standards and scientific principles. These define the minimum of what must be included for a food safety standard to be rigorous and valid.”

The standards are created by industry experts, Dyenson says, and both the certifications and compliance methods grow out of these minimum standards.

Because different countries have different standards in their varying regulatory bodies, it’s important to understand these issues before embarking on a program of certification, according to Natalia Gamarra Cockle, business development manager at Suterra, a provider of natural pest control solutions based in Bend, OR.

“Navigating through these country-specific requirements can be confusing, and they require additional research and documentation,” she says. “To avoid misunderstandings or misleading certifications, we recommend thoroughly researching the requirements, seeking guidance from relevant authorities or industry experts, and staying updated on any changes or updates to certification standards.”

Gamarra advises that small-scale producers in particular should evaluate the requirements of certifications and assess the feasibility of obtaining them, especially with complex and costly ones such as GlobalG.A.P. With the proliferation of so many certifications and standards, particularly around food safety, it’s impossible for any company to receive them all, let alone remain in compliance.

Tamara Muruetagoiena, vice president of sustainability at IFPA and a colleague of Dyenson, agrees.

“Certifications are an expense, as you pay a fee to be recognized, but they provide market access and proof of claims often required to do business in certain areas or with certain partners.

“The exact return on investment (ROI) will differ from company to company,” she says, “and that’s why it’s important for companies to choose the standards that will align with their goals, values, and business strategies.”

This is an excerpt from a feature story from the March/April 2024 issue of Produce Blueprints Magazine.