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Editorial - Certified: The Stamp of Confusion.

By Len Monheit

A couple weeks ago in this column, I spoke about the number and types of certification schemes emerging with relevance to our industry, suggesting ultimately that there is ‘hyper-presentation’ of credentials, that if not watched carefully, has the chance of diluting significantly, the significance of any single credential, seal or certification, especially in easily overwhelmed consumer consciousness.

Since that time, we have seen at least one new certification (at least I’ve never seen it before), the Gluten-Free Certification Organization, and I’m pretty sure we’re about to see several more.

It’s very apparent that the proliferation of schemes are designed to enhance product differentiation and ostensibly, to enhance audience confidence. One must wonder though, if the chief impact of certification programs and schemes is to support and build consumer confidence, at a certain point, does not the plethora of schemes actually undermine this goal?

Even in a business to business environment, we’re starting to see this proliferation. As with many realities in this marketplace, there is the tendency to oversimplify, and the result of the oversimplification is a lack of transparency. Let’s take an NPIcenter related example we’ve been discussing internally for the past week or so.

The company, a new international profile company, wished to indicate its GMP compliance status on the description page of its Resource Profile – informing us that they were ‘GMP certified’. We queried the company for details, ultimately learning the name of the certifier and a few details on the scope of certification. The process gave rise to several questions including how best to present this information and whether it was possible to standardize the way (at least on NPIcenter) we could display all three of these elements, whether they were associated with a specific company or a specific product. Ultimately, we would hope to have a link from our standardized presentation of this information to a single web page that explained the critical elements of the seal or certification so that in one link, our readers could get a very good sense of what they were or were not getting (so look for this standardization in the near future).

Let me take one step backward.

It’s a fact of business that an issue often arises, not as a crisis per se, but as an outcome of series of discussions all relating to a particular subject, over a very condensed period of time. In my very recent conversations with industry peers and mentors, as well as with a couple of engaged viewers, the subject of significance of certifications has come up several times – even before I wrote my editorial of a few weeks ago. It’s often that way, with like-minded people thinking about critical issues at the same time, to see them become tipping-point events as an industry evolves.

So on the issue of certification, a key aspect of recent dialogue involved the role of the company and how that applied to the certification. If a company was only a packager and not a manufacturer, and had been audited and certified as GMP compliant, was the scope of the audit different for a packager versus a manufacturer? Was the actual use of the GMP certification limited to a presentation of the company’s role as a packager and not as a manufacturer? Were there instances where the audience could be misled? Similarly, are there ‘scope of responsibility’ issues and limitations or qualifiers of audits that ought to be expressed when citing the seal or certification? (Perhaps a good question for auditing or certifying agencies).

(In the current example, for Canada, the company’s site establishment license does specify the role of the company – packager, distributor, manufacturer etc. – although the license is the result of a self-inspection rather than third party effort)

Taking these last couple discussion points into consideration, ultimately, for full disclosure, should not a certification or seal represent its name, the certifier, the scope of the certification and the processes involved? In this age of international reliance and business activity, one would think that this type of expectation (and standardization) would help make business operations and quality principles a bit more transparent and potentially more valuable. On the flip side though, one must recognize that the desire to embody a ‘seal’ or ‘emblem’ or ‘kite mark’ with all this substance is directly opposed to laying out all of these details every time the credentials are presented.

I realize as well, that all too often, standardization is a precursor to commoditization and that is not what I’m suggesting. It all comes back to higher expectations and better questions, and I don’t think there’s a downside to that.

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