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Take a humble carrot, make it part of a shepherd’s pie and sell it at a specialist food store. Those who consume the pie do so expecting it to be safe, nutritious and as described on the label. Those who produce it expect to be rewarded for adhering to particular standards such as organic, food safety management or animal welfare. The retailer will also expect recognition for meeting standards covering quality systems, food safety and health and safety.
All of these expectations are supported by the existence of tests, certificates, standards and schemes that verify the relevant requirements have been met from farm to fork. For the last 25 years, the organisations and individuals that undertake such assessments have been increasingly accredited by the United Kingdom Accreditation Service (UKAS). It is the national accreditation body responsible for the nation’s accreditation network, and its role is to ensure competence, impartiality and fairness are in place whenever an accredited assessment takes place.
It means that irrespective of the differences involved in delivering a particular assessment, be it a test, measurement, inspection or certification, the same diligence is applied in every situation. So, an accredited test will hold equivalence, irrespective of where it takes place and whatever type of assessing organisation or testing facility is involved.
A good illustration to consider relates to measurements. The first standardisation of measurements took place in China during the Qin dynasty which lasted from 221 to 206 BCE. It meant consumers, traders and producers knew exactly what they were getting in terms of weight or size, irrespective of where the transaction took place. This approach to standardisation is largely credited for enabling China to unite from disparate states into a cohesive nation. The trust and confidence delivered by standards continues to create level playing fields for traders along with continuity and conformity for consumers to this day.
Such certainty is much needed in the face of the many current changes the world is being challenged by at present. Brexit, US trade negotiations and Covid-19 are consistently creating new uncertainties for food producers and retailers.
With the 25th anniversary of the national accreditation body in mind, what can be learnt from the last quarter of a century that might be of benefit for the next? To answer this, it is valuable to look at the scope of accreditation.
Returning to the humble shepherd’s pie. While most people working to produce and sell this pie will know of the accredited inspections, tests, certificates, standards and schemes relating to their own portion of the process, few may be aware how comprehensively UKAS accreditation supports the entire farm to fork supply chain and retail effort.
For instance, the carrot farm is subject to environmental requirements based on air, soil and water testing. Each test may be sent to a UKAS accredited laboratory. The farm may also be organic or belong to a scheme such as the Red Tractor Assurance Scheme, which is one of the largest assurance schemes supporting farm, supply chain and food safety. Any lifting, handling and pressure vessel equipment operated on site, plus the storage and handling of hazardous chemicals will all be subject to inspection. These schemes and inspection bodies are accredited by UKAS. The retailer selling the shepherd pie will be subject to a wide number of regulations and requirements that need certification, many of which will be issued by certification bodies accredited by UKAS. The retailer is also likely to utilise the BRCGS’s storage and distribution standard, which again is accredited by UKAS.
As this admittedly simplified illustration shows, UKAS provides the framework for a very comprehensive accreditation infrastructure. Certification, testing, inspection and measurement bodies or organisations provide the outreach, but UKAS ensures that each meets the same requirements for impartiality, competency and performance capability. It is this process which delivers the conformity of approach required for international trade.
This is achieved through UKAS’s involvement in international groups such as EA, IAF and ILAC. These organisations work to achieve mutual recognition between countries of specific accredited activities embodied by the concept of ‘accredited once, accepted everywhere.’ For example, through the multilateral recognition agreement (MLA) with the International Accreditation Forum (IAF), certified activities that carry UKAS accreditation are recognised in over 90 economies worldwide.
An alternative way of reviewing the last 25 years is to think what would have happened without a national accreditation body? While individual schemes and standards would no doubt have come into existence, what process would ensure equivalence across the piece, irrespective of number of organisations, size of operation or where they are based? The answer may have been multiple bodies providing assessment services, but how would it be possible to ensure a coordinated standard of execution across these assessments? The answer would be a national accreditation body operating a two-step process, with the assessors themselves being assessed in order to achieve a standardised approach.
In fact, this first happened in 1966 when the process of accredited standards was recognised by the government in relation to calibration services. Over the years, measurement and laboratory testing services were also given national accreditation services, as were certification bodies. These were finally unified into one service in 1995, when UKAS was created under Memorandum of Understanding with the government.
Few would argue that there is a high level of confidence in the quality of the UK’s food and farming output. This is underpinned by accreditation. Even in the face of Covid-19, the process has continued to deliver. Remote assessments have been established and safe working practices adopted.
Post Brexit and post international trading agreements, whatever final standards are adopted there is surety, based on the last 25 years, that the accreditation system will deliver them efficiently and effectively. If consumer demand, producer pressure or regulators require new standards or schemes in order to differentiate the quality and safety of UK food, then UKAS accreditation will ensure they are translated from detail to practice. This proven approach will continue to serve in the future, delivering confidence to consumers and giving producers access to international markets as well as enhancing their reputation at home.
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