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Certifications & Compliance: What’s to Come


As the produce industry and consumer choices evolve, the most important certifications may not exist yet.

Regionally specific certifications may be culturally rooted or based in regulatory framework, but while environmental criteria tend to be consistent across countries, social and consumer preferences may be much more variable.

“I wouldn’t say we need new certifications,” says Tamara Muruetagoiena, vice president of sustainability at the International Fresh Produce Association (IFPA), but she does believe there should be focus on climate-smart and regenerative agriculture.

“The application process should be rigorous and can be complex, but it must be verifiable through concrete documentation—this is what builds the trust required to give value to these certifications.”

Particularly with consumer-driven compliance programs, it’s also important for companies to understand the differing levels of “party” certification. While all are worthwhile, there are major differences that can affect consumer trust.

With first-party certification (self-declaration of conformance) and second-party certification (determination of conformance by an interested party), there are still requirements and standards.

“Third-party certifications, however, provide the most trusted and reliable assurance, as they’re independent of the producer,” says Jaclyn Bowen, executive director of the Clean Label Project. “These types of certifications demonstrate the producer can meet a set of criteria that has been independently developed and often requires detailed document review, onsite inspection, and even testing of the product.”

The experts also agree that, with some irony, there is no universal standard in choosing which standards to adopt, and producers should take the specific priorities of their target markets into account before choosing which certifications to pursue.

“It’s challenging to categorize certifications as valuable or important universally, as their relevance could vary depending on specific contexts and consumer preferences,” says Natalia Gamarra Cockle, business development manager at Suterra, a provider of natural pest control solutions based in Bend, OR.

“However, certifications that might be less critical for some scenarios include those that are highly specific to a particular niche market, but which may not provide significant added value or address major concerns in the broader industry.”

With an increasingly global marketplace for fresh fruits and vegetables and new regulatory requirements emerging across the world, there is no question that certification programs and compliance standards will increase.

Consumer demand, concerns about product safety, and the need for sustainable agriculture will continue to require a framework to prove companies are delivering on their promises. This means they’ll need to be judicious in determining if the programs are worth the time and expense, and which will provide the most ROI.

“Because there is no one universally agreed-upon definition of these topics, it could result in inaccurate perceptions on the part of the buyer or the consumer, and ‘greenwashing’ on the part of suppliers,” 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.

In the face of these difficult choices, however, Bowen insists the process is ultimately worthwhile.

“All schemes carry some value,” she says. “Market utility and value dictates each certification’s marketplace staying power. All certification schemes need to be examined from the context of their stakeholders and what’s important to them.

“The key question is which ones are organized well and strive to drive the value, integrity, and efficacy of products so consumers can be assured that changing environments, technology, and other factors are continually examined and implemented.”

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