How Effective Are Ontario’s Certifying Bodies? Insights from Organic Operators across the Province

As an organic operator (grower, processor, manufacturer) in the province of Ontario, you must apply to and undergo review by a Certifying Body (CB) of your choosing in order to certify your operations as organic. CBs operating in Ontario are accredited by the CFIA, allowing them to certify products as organic under the Canada Organic Regime (COR) requirements.

Consequently, the major roles that a CB plays in certification are accepting and processing applications, conducting on-site inspections, and ultimately granting certification (or choosing to withhold it) after reviewing all collected information. A negative experience with a CB can deter or create obstacles for many operators who are trying to attain organic certification. Contrarily, a positive experience with a CB can ease the certification process, and ensure that the transition to becoming a certified organic producer is as thorough and seamless as possible.

How can we assess the efficiency and effectiveness of Ontario’s CBs? Asking organic operators

On account of a survey conducted this spring by Tom Manley – an organic consultant who we have partnered with – we have been able to gain some insights with regards to these questions directly from Ontario organic operators. While some operators who took part in the survey are at the stage of considering organic certification, the vast majority have either previously underwent or are currently undergoing the process and have therefore dealt with CBs firsthand.

Primarily, the survey sought to better understand how the competitive certification service market functions in Ontario, as well as to assess the overall strengths and weaknesses of CBs and their general performance according to the operators who look to them for certification.

A total of 143 operators participated in the survey, the majority of which were farmers of small- to medium-sized operations. The participants have been or are currently certified with one of five leading CBs in Ontario.

Operator satisfaction with CB

Overall, the two areas found to be most important to participants with regards to CB satisfaction were:

  1. The overall costs of certification; and
  2. Overall customer service experience.

Relatedly, it is important to note that out of the fraction of respondents who are not currently certified, 75% expressed that it was primarily due to the high cost and time required, without sufficient appreciative return on investment.

Survey participants were asked to rate their CB using 9 performance indicators. The following chart shows the aggregate responses of what areas CBs are performing best in:

Overall, there appears to be a general satisfaction with CBs across all 9 indicators – though not exceedingly so. Operator satisfaction is relatively lower for price competitiveness and customer service experience (e.g. receiving timely answers to questions asked) – the two areas that, as previously stated, appear to be the most important factors in shaping operator attitudes towards CBs.

Ease of administrative processes also appears to be significantly lower on the spectrum – for example, paper burden and difficulties with online tools associated with application are areas of lower satisfaction.

Common complaints

When asked to describe any complaints about their CB, only 21% of respondents chose to do so – further suggesting a general satisfaction with CBs among operators. Out of 28 complaints in total, the most common were concerning customer service issues – especially insufficient or delayed responses to questions, as well as slow communication overall. Some operators also expressed the need for more support during the input approval process, or better assistance in sourcing and gathering the information required about the inputs they are using or plan to use.

Also notable were some comments regarding the improper or inconsistent interpretation of the standards by CB employees and inspectors. With regards to inspection services, participants generally expressed satisfaction with their most recent inspection, but some did remark on a perceived lack of knowledge, experience and proper procedure on the part of their inspector.

Does this result in operators changing CBs?

Despite complaints about high costs or customer service shortcomings, roughly 50% of operators surveyed expressed that they were generally satisfied with their current CB, and that this is the primary reason that they have not switched to another:

However, there are a notable proportion of surveyed operators (approximately 25%) who do not intend to switch CBs due to the time and cost of doing so – as well as another 25% who do not want to switch due to a perceived lack of diversity in terms of experience (specifically cost or quality of service). It seems that a lack of education or knowledge about the variation in costs between CBs may be contributing to this effect.

Among the operators who have expressed that they would like to change CBs, only about 50% have been either partially or fully successful in making the switch (see figure below). This suggests that the barriers as previously mentioned likely outweigh the potential advantages of switching, and/or any cost or service differences between CBs are not significant enough to justify the switch for many operators.

Operators seem to be satisfied, but CBs could do more

High costs and customer service issues are common among CBs, but many operators still wish to remain with their current certifying body. Many of those not content with their current CB still have not switched to a different one, seemingly due to the associated costs in time, money and effort but also because there seems to be a strong sense among operators that CBs “are all the same”. Given the low frequency of switching between CBs, it seems likely that CBs do not vary significantly in terms of cost or quality of service.

When offered the choice, operators expressed a desire for CBs to do more in terms of services offered, beyond certification. The following chart shows which services survey participants were most interested in benefiting from:

For example, in areas such as the provision of improved input approval support, online directories (for organic suppliers, input manufacturers, organic markets), and networking, operators report a significant gap. These are areas which not only could improve operator experience with their CB, but could also lessen or potentially remove barriers for operators transitioning to organic and are therefore worthwhile to consider.

Gaps in certifying services, and how we can address them

OCO seeks to address the most prominent barriers and obstacles that operators experience in pursuing certification – for example, in providing operators with information that can assist them in selecting a CB that is right for them, such as through our 2018 CB cost comparison. The Canadian Organic Growers also offers a list of questions to ask when choosing a CB, to help you assess whether they are a good fit. 

Regarding additional services requested by the participants surveyed, last year OCO launched our online directory of certified producers, suppliers, manufacturers and processors to help operators make connections throughout the value chain. OCO is also currently working on a project on input approvals in conjunction with the Organic Value Chain Roundtable Task Force on Inputs, in order to examine the feasibility of creating a national list of inputs approved for organic production which operators can consult.

Interestingly, survey respondents also provided numerous suggestions for other certification services and labels that would benefit them and improve upon existing organic standards:

The fact that operators desire additional certification services for certain single-claim labels that are already covered by the Canadian organic standards – such as non-GMO, hormone-free and antibiotic-free – points to gaps in consumer education. OCO has developed and is continuing to develop educational materials in order to increase public understanding of the organic label. For example, in our “More than Just” blog series (e.g. More than Just Non-GMO), we outline how organic is more than just a single-claim label. We are also currently working on a series of public education materials around meat labels.

Operators surveyed also expressed a desire for a ‘local’ organic certification. Some operators may not be aware of the Foodland Ontario Organic label, which can be used by certified organic operators who also meet the Foodland Ontario standards. In 2015, certifying body Pro-Cert also introduced their Pro-Cert Local Organic program, which is available for small family farms in Ontario. As part of our work advocating for organic regulation in Ontario, OCO has also been advocating for supports for small-scale producers, such as a local organic certification for low-risk small-scale farms.

It is also interesting that operators desire further certification services for labels such as “grassfed”, which are currently not regulated but are increasingly in demand. OCO recently completed a market study looking at single-claim meat labels in comparison to organic, and found that some claims are outcompeting organic in price. You can find our report highlights or download the full report here.

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