As part of our series of Certified Transitional blog posts we interviewed Sarah Krol, Global Managing Director at QAI and asked her to tell us about QAI, the details behind Certified Transitional, how it was developed and what it means for farmers and consumers.
Could you tell us a bit about who QAI and NSF are?
QAI (Quality Assurance International) is a leading USDA-accredited organic product certifying agency. Founded in San Diego, California in 1989, QAI has been an active leader in the organic industry, advocating for high integrity organic regulations since its beginning. QAI is committed to ensuring organic integrity at every link in the organic production chain and providing excellent customer service, domestically and internationally. Today, QAI is a member of the NSF International family of companies.
NSF International is a global independent organization that writes standards, and tests and certifies products for the water, food, and health sciences and consumer goods industries to minimize adverse health effects and protect the environment (nsf.org). Founded in 1944, NSF is committed to protecting human health and safety worldwide. Operating in more than 165 countries, NSF International is a Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization (WHO) Collaborating Center on Food Safety, Water Quality and Indoor Environment.
What are the roles of standards and certifications in the US market?
Third-party certification means that an independent organization has reviewed the manufacturing process of a product and has independently determined that the final product complies with specific standards for safety, quality or performance.
For the QAI Certified Transitional program, this includes an audit of the farm where the food is produced to verify adherence to the program’s requirements. This helps ensure that Certified Transitional products meet consumer expectations.
Why are standards and certifications beneficial to consumers?
Most certified products bear the certifier’s mark on their packaging to help consumers and other buyers make educated purchasing decisions. In the case of QAI Certified Transitional, it helps consumers identify products and support companies and farmers as they transition to organic.
How is the Certified Transitional program beneficial to farmers?
People are demanding more organic food – sales topped $40 billion in 2014 and continue to rise - and retailers are being asked about their plans to make organics more accessible to everyday customers. But today, less than 1% of US farmland is organic, and access to wholesome, organic food is limited to those who can afford the price premium. To meet growing demand while increasing access, organic acreage must expand significantly. However, converting fields from traditional to organic is no small feat. It takes a minimum of three years to fully transition, and the costs of doing so fall on the farmers.
During this transition period, if farmers grow crops on their land they are not yet able to sell their crops in the organic market. Farmers may experience higher operating costs which they cannot recoup until they have achieved organic certification.
The limited supply of organic farmland has led some food companies to purchase entire organic farms in order to secure raw material supply. QAI's program supports any farmer transitioning to organic while enabling farmers to maintain ownership of their land and access the growing organic market. Additionally, the Certified Transitional Mark on product packaging allow consumers to identify and support efforts to increase organic farmland.
How did Certified Transitional come about?
The spark of the idea came from Kashi. QAI, an independent organization and USDA-accredited organic product certifying body led the development of certification requirements and piloted the program with Kashi and its supplier Hesco, a specialty grain company that sources mills, blends, and packages organic and conventional grains. QAI worked to develop guidelines for each year of the farmers’ 3-year transition period, requirements for processors to separate transitional crops from conventional and organic, and a process for verifying on-the-ground transitional farming practices that convert land to become eligible for organic certification.
How was it developed?
QAI created the certification requirements independently with input from a variety of experts and stakeholders including agricultural suppliers, an environmental NGO, organic consultants and strategists, standards experts, farmers, retailers, distributors, Kashi, other food brands, and Hesco, a specialty grain company that sources mills, blends, and packages organic and conventional grains.
What were some of the unique challenges in developing this standard?
We developed the Certified Transitional protocol so it would be widely applicable and available to the public. By involving key stakeholders we discussed many aspects through the supply chain and ultimately, this robust stakeholder review process led to a very technically sound, responsible protocol.
What, specifically, does Certified Transitional mean?
Certified Transitional is a compliance assessment program that progresses each year with additional compliance expectations. It is open to any organization throughout the supply chain looking to support the creation of more organic farmland.
The process starts with a self-assessment against the program requirements, which are based on USDA National Organic Program regulations, followed by annual onsite verifications by QAI to identify any non-compliances, opportunities for improvement and to resolve open issues.
In the third year of transition the producer should be able to demonstrate full compliance with the National Organic Program regulations and be eligible to apply for organic certification. Additionally, operations which are not currently certified organic must participate in organic practices educational sessions or webinars to assure readiness to maintain compliance.
QAI Certified Transitional can be applied throughout the supply chain and includes increasingly rigorous requirements over three years:
- No prohibited substances: Sewage sludge, irradiation, GMOs and other National Organic Program prohibited substances are not permitted on certified transitional land or product.
- Organic training: Producers and manufacturers are required to complete education courses to demonstrate competency in organic regulations.
- Accountability: Farms and manufacturing facilities are subject to annual inspections and may be selected for unannounced inspections and sampling.
- Due diligence: Records demonstrating compliance with the applicable elements of organic regulations must be created and maintained from the start of the program including compliance plans, land use, soil fertility, seeds and planting stock, crop rotation, pest/disease control and any inputs or ingredients used.
- Approved labeling: Depending on percentage of transitional ingredients, products can display certain claims on packaging. Products with at least 51% transitional ingredients can display the Certified Transitional mark on packaging.
What is the difference between Certified Transitional and certified organic?
The Certified Transitional protocol is not formally connected to USDA’s organic regulation. However, QAI is a USDA-accredited certifying body approved to provide organic certification in accordance with the USDA's National Organic Program. The Certified Transitional protocol is designed to provide participants an independent and public certification that creates a transparent path toward eligibility for USDA organic certification at the end of the 3-year transition period.
The protocol states only 51% of the product must be made with Certified Transitional ingredients by weight which is different to the USDA Organic label which is at 70%. Why is that?
QAI and the stakeholders involved in the protocol development aimed to create an initial framework that is achievable and practical, moving companies to formulate and produce more Transitional products for consumers. Last year there were less than 2000 farms transitioning to organic which means today there is limited transitional supply.
The protocol states that the percent of Certified Transitional ingredients in a product determines the types of claims that can be made on the package. The program currently allows products with at least 51% Certified Transitional ingredients to use the mark with a statement such as “Made with Transitional X, Y and Z ingredients.” However, this percentage requirement may increase in the future. As participation in Certified Transitional increases so too does the commercial availability of transitional ingredients.
As an example, Kashi Wheat Biscuit Cereal Dark Cocoa Karma ingredients are about 80 percent transitional whole grain wheat. The balance is a blend of organic and Fair Trade cocoa and hints of organic cinnamon and cane syrup. If certified transitional wheat is not available, certified organic wheat is used instead.
What are your hopes for the future of Certified Transitional?
Transitional products are a tool to get to organic. They are, quite literally, “organics-in-training.” Once the three-year transition period is complete, successful transitional farmland then becomes eligible for organic certification, contributing to the available supply of organic products and enabling market growth. Together with existing organics, transitional crops are a powerful engine to an organic future. We believe that providing a market incentive to move the needle is the most powerful way to change our food system.