There are several different types of inspections that take place when a farm is certified as organic under Soil Association standards, including spot checks and follow up inspections. But the main one is the annual inspection which is conducted in a series of steps, as follows.
Once a date is agreed with the licence-holder, the inspector sends confirmation, accompanied by a guidance sheet on the information that needs to be available on the day (for example invoices and records). Any staff involved in the enterprise, such as stockmen, should also be available.
The day of inspection starts off with a friendly opening meeting where the plan for the visit is agreed and confidentiality is discussed. This helps determine if there are any time constraints that might affect the inspection, such as milking.
In this meeting, the inspector finds out where the stock and crops are located on the farm, to help decide which fields to visit. On an annual inspection, around one third of each type of crop should be seen.
Next comes the farm walk – usually taking two to three hours. During this time, the livestock welfare is discussed. The inspector must see all the animals. If they can’t for some reason – eg lambs away wintering – this is noted in the report.
The inspector checks the health of crops and signs of non-organic activity. They check bordering non-organic fields for possible spray drift or breaks in fences which could compromise organic integrity. And they look in all farm buildings, including behind closed doors, the medicine cabinet and any other nooks and crannies!
This is followed by the documentation review. The management plan and health plan, records of feed purchases, brought-in animals, field inputs and activity, vet treatments and purchases (and more) are checked.
Then it is time for the inspector to complete and present the report to the farmer using the information gathered during the day, summarise any arising actions and collect a signed declaration. Any arising ‘Non Compliances’ are agreed with the farmer.
Non compliances (NC) range from Minor NC, Major NC and Critical NC. If an issue which raised a Minor NC one year hasn’t been rectified by the next inspection, this becomes a Major NC. Some issues go straight to Major or Critical and both these could mean loss of organic status.
An issue which compromises organic status would raise a Critical NC. Examples are using treated seed for organic crops, spraying crops with prohibited inputs or using non-organic animal feed. These are referred directly to the Soil Association Certification committee, which decides whether organic status should be removed.
The inspector is not there on a hunt for non-compliances, but to ensure that standards are being met. Although inspectors cannot advise directly, they are always happy to suggest sources of advice and support, pass on requests for information, or help make links with other licensees to find new markets.
Lucy Murton is Inspector Manager for Soil Association Certification
Information about the work of the Soil Association
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