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Definitions for aquaculture certification

This section describes aquaculture certification and some of the definitions associated with the process of certification. These are taken largely from International Standards Organization (ISO) documents, the WTO Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT) agreement, the FAO Guidelines for the Ecolabelling of Fish and Fishery Products from Marine Capture Fisheries and the Network of Aquaculture Centres in Asia-Pacific (NACA) Web site.4 A list of definitions used in reference documents relevant to aquaculture certification is reported in Annex 1.


Certification (in its broad meaning also known as conformity assessment) is a procedure through which written or equivalent assurance states that a product, process or service conforms to specified requirements. Within the aquaculture sector certification can be applied to a process followed by a production unit (e.g. pond, cage, farm, processing plant), a specific product or commodity or to the inputs being applied to the system before or during production. A process of testing or auditing (also known as inspection) is generally conducted to assess the degree of compliance of the entity to be certified to specific standards. The process of testing or auditing of an entity is conducted by an auditor or inspecting body. On many occasions the inspecting body also issues a certificate to the entity, therefore declaring conformity to the standards and, as such, acting as a certification body. In the context of certification the word label is also used, often to indicate that a certain product complies with certain standards or it was produced from an entity in compliance with a specific set of standards or regulations. When these standards or regulations indicate a higher level of environmental sustainability, then the word ecolabel is used frequently, although this term is more often used to describe a label applicable to capture fisheries.

Depending largely on the relationship between the entity being certified and the certification body, the process of certification can be classified as follows:

In its definition of certification, ISO refers only to third party certification, using the term "conformity assessment" to describe first party and second party certification. However, as the term "certification" is still widely used to indicate other forms of conformity assessment, it will be used in this review in its broader meaning.

Whilst fourth party certification is not widespread, because of the alleged lack of conflicts of interest between certified parties and the certification body, third party certification is generally perceived as the highest form of assurance of compliance to a specific set of standards. For this reason, as will be described hereunder, third party certification is indeed the form of certification most often sought. However, an important criterion to be taken into account when assessing the quality of a certification scheme is the identification of the entity, if any, that recognizes that a certain certification body is suitable for issuing specific certificates: the accreditation body. The word accreditation is often used incorrectly as a synonym for "certification". However, as defined by ISO, accreditation is "the procedure by which an authoritative body gives formal recognition that a body or person is competent to carry out specific tasks". Although accreditation can be conducted by any entity, bodies have been established to ensure the quality of the accreditation process and consequently of certification. The International Accreditation Forum, Inc. (IAF) is the world association of conformity assessment accreditation bodies in the fields of management systems, products, services, personnel and other conformity assessment programmes. As such, membership of the IAF often is perceived as a guarantee of quality of an accreditation body. Similarly, the European cooperation for Accreditation (EA) is also an association of accreditation bodies. The EA is a non-profit organization consisting of 39 European accreditation bodies and representing European accreditation bodies to the IAF.

As stated above, certification is conducted to assess conformity to specific requirements for a product or process. These requirements are generally expressed as standards. Standards can be either mandatory or voluntary. Examples of mandatory standards are those set by governments that regulate the production or trade of aquaculture products. Although it is sometimes difficult to clearly separate mandatory from voluntary schemes, especially when referring to government-promoted initiatives, this review will focus primarily on voluntary schemes, which are generally designed to distinguish farms or commodities based on quality criteria. It is important to note though, that voluntary schemes frequently require compliance to the law applicable to the entities being certified, although this by no means signifies that compliance with voluntary certification schemes can replace any part of the legal framework of a country.

Statements addressing the quality of a process or product are not always expressed as standards and can have different forms. For example, principles are statements describing the philosophical basis for production, trading and consumption of a product and are aimed at guiding stakeholders towards improving the sustainability of the sector. Principles can include sets of criteria which provide more details on how to achieve sustainability. Codes of Conduct (CoC) and Codes of Practice (CoP) provide examples of principles, with the latter being more popular to describe principles relevant to a specific commodity as opposed to the CoC which would be covering issues of importance to the sustainability of the sector as a whole. The CoC for Responsible Fisheries developed by FAO to improve the sustainability of the fisheries sector as a whole (i.e. both capture fisheries and aquaculture) is a notable example of a CoC.

The implementation of principles is generally achieved through the development of practices, which generally address issues of importance for a specific commodity and/or production system. Better Management Practices (BMP), Good Aquaculture Practices (GAP), Better Aquaculture Practices (BAP) and others are all examples of practices for the implementation of the principles. BMP, GAP and their counterparts are somehow "indicative", as opposed to standards, either mandatory (e.g. legal documents) or voluntary, which are more "normative"5 rules for a product or process. Although the terms BMP, GAP and others have been used almost interchangeably to define practices for the sustainability of the aquaculture sector, GAP often refers to practices that address food safety as opposed to BMP that tend to include practices relevant to environmental protection, social responsibility and disease management (see definitions in Annex 1).

Although certification is generally conducted to assess conformity with well-defined standards, this document will review a broader range of schemes, including schemes that assess conformity to principles or general rules targeting quality of aquaculture products or processes. Similarly, schemes that address the sustainability of commodities produced by a country or globally, i.e. do not assess conformity of a specific business, will also be reviewed.


A typical certification scheme is constituted by the following elements:

Certification standards are composed of statements sometimes known as "control points". A process or product must comply with these control points before being suitable for certification. Control points that are compulsory for certification can be defined as "critical" or a "major must". Some of the control points however are not compulsory (a "minor must") although a threshold percentage of the complied points has often to be achieved before a certificate is issued. There may also be "recommendations", which are points that are desirable but have very little or no bearing on the certification process.

Assessment of compliance is generally conducted by an inspection body which can report to a separate certification body or issue the certificates directly, therefore acting as certification body. Inspection/CBs are selected generally by the company seeking certification. Different certification schemes have different processes for identifying and accrediting CBs and this should be clearly defined in any certification scheme. Inspections are generally conducted following set schedules but can be supplemented by spot (unannounced) checks.

If the process or product is compliant with the standards a certificate is then issued. This certificate can be used according to the regulations set by the certification scheme (for example claims can be made of compliance with the standards; a label can be used only on packaging throughout the supply chain but not directly on the product; a label stating compliance can be used directly on the product; etc.). A period of certificate validity has also to be clearly stated.

A chain-of-custody has also to be established to ensure that the certified products are kept separate from products not compliant to a specific certification scheme.


In addition to differentiating certification schemes based on the degree of independence between the certification body and the party being certified (such as first, second, third party certification), certification schemes can be differentiated or characterized using other criteria such as:

Certification/standards targeting food chain operators versus consumers

Certification schemes can either target the food chain operators (also known as business-to-business, B2B, certification) or the consumers. In the first instance standards are applied within the supply chain and serve to ensure that the process or product being supplied through the chain is produced following the specified standards. The consumers are often unaware of the existence of these certification schemes, therefore they have only a limited opportunity to exert market pressure on products from certified supply chains. Certification and standards that target consumers are aimed at segmenting the market for the final product by clearly differentiating certified products using labels or marks. Through this mechanism consumers can exert market pressure by paying premium prices for certified products or by not buying uncertified products.

These two categories are very different in the way they operate. Schemes that target food chain operators tend to have clear specifications for raw materials and intermediary and final products. Clear standards are also set for the process to be followed for testing and auditing. These schemes are generally aimed at increasing competitiveness by reducing transaction costs while preserving quality.6 Most retailer-driven efforts belong to this category (i.e. they are developed primarily to ensure retailers of product/process quality). Contrariwise, schemes targeting consumers tend to differentiate the product based on specific attributes that may induce consumers to pay premium prices. These two categories also focus on different approaches to food quality with food chain operator schemes having a more "holistic" approach than consumer schemes, which often follow an "excellence" approach to quality as explained hereunder.

Process versus product certification

Standards and the certification schemes developed to assess conformity can regulate either the process through which a product is produced or the product itself. Although process certification is meant to influence the quality of the product, process certification does not provide any guarantee about the quality of the product. The ISO points out this difference very strongly, recommending that marks stating the conformity of the business to process standards should not appear on product labels or packaging, because this would give consumers the impression that the product is certified as conforming to a specific set of standards, which in the case of process certification would be untrue.

5 A norm is the reference value of an indicator and is established for use as a rule or as a basis for comparison. By comparing the norm with the actual measured value, the result demonstrates the degree of fulfillment of a criterion and of compliance with a principle.
6 EC DG JRC/IPTS. 2006. Preparatory economic analysis of the value-adding processes within integrated supply chains in food and agriculture — overview of existing studies.

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