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Becoming Food Alliance Certified: An inside look at the certification process

Posted: February 11, 2010

As someone with an abiding interest in sustainability standards and certification, I was excited to see that the Food Alliance had a session planned at this year’s PASA conference. The Food Alliance began in 1994 in the Northwest region, where it is well-recognized and has a very strong presence. It more recently moved into the Midwest, and is only just beginning operations in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic region.

The session at the PASA conference combined information about the sustainability certification process from Scott Exo, of the Food Alliance, and Kim Seeley, who is the first farmer in Pennsylvania to get certified.

The Food Alliance’s sustainability certification is for the whole farm, and takes into account labor, animal welfare, habitat, soil, water and pest and disease management.  In this respect, the Food Alliance goes beyond the more environmental focus of many other eco-labels, such as the USDA Organic label, to include social criteria such as labor, and address some commonly overlooked areas, such as wildlife habitat.   In terms of the criteria, certain elements are fixed (such as a ban on hormones) and some are scored (for example irrigation, where there’s a range for water conservation between 1-4 points).  For scored areas, producers need to have an average of 3 points.  By evaluating criteria along a sliding scale, farmers can get certified while still identifying areas that need work, and in this way the certification process allows for continual improvement. The Food Alliance also certifies packers, processors and distributors.  As long as distributors handle at least one Food Alliance certified product they can certify both their process and their products, and use certification to market their operation and responsible practices.

Producers get inspected every three years, but have paperwork every year and may be subject to unscheduled audits at any time. The cost of the certification process is done on a sliding scale, and as a producer’s gross sales go up, so does the fee.  The certification process takes about 6-7 weeks to complete. There’s an online self-assessment form for producers to see how they would do before deciding whether or not to invest in certification.  Once a producer is certified, the Food Alliance is very involved with helping farmers to market themselves and to explain why it’s important to choose an independent third party certifier.   In Pennsylvania, the Food Alliance is working in conjunction with PASA to promote certification and educate producers and consumers about what the label means.

Food Alliance audits do not currently overlap with GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) audits, although for processors the standards include HACCP certification.  In the future, it may be possible that the Food Alliance could administer GAP audits in conjunction with their own. At the moment the Food Alliance can validate other claims to get dual certification, that would also include, for example, the USDA’s grass-fed label.

Kim Seeley talked about his personal experiences at the PASA conference session, which shed light on farmers’ varied motivations for certifying and some of the anticipated benefits.  Kim is the first fluid milk bottler to get certified, although he is not certifying his meat production, which is already certified organic and would also require that his processor get certified in order to use the Food Alliance label.   Although it’s not very common to direct market milk, Kim started a Farm-to-College relationship in 2001.  When he started selling to the college, it decided not to inform the students of the change in product, since it felt that this could be risky due to Kim’s unconventional production practices.  Kim sold his milk to the college at a higher price, but not too high to price himself out of the market.  Without knowing where the milk was coming from, consumption of milk in the cafeteria increased substantially. Now, the college uses his milk as a marketing tool.

Kim feels that he needs certification to demonstrate his authenticity and to protect his markets, and that the certification process adds economic value to his product. While he already has a relationship with the college, he cited the growing popularity of sustainable and local food claims, and believes that having Food Alliance certification helps to distinguish his operation and prove that his production processes abide by stricter standards.

By Dara Bloom, Rural Sociology Graduate Student

Information in this article is from the presentation “Becoming Food Alliance Certified: An inside look at the certification process” given at the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) Farming for the Future Conference. More resources can be found on the PASA website (http://www.pasafarming.org/our-work/food-alliance-certification), and the Food Alliance website (http://foodalliance.org/).