Seafood certification schemes embracing virtual audits in the face of the COVID-19 crisis

Published on
April 22, 2020

Coronavirus-prevention protocols around the world are encouraging limited in-person interaction and self-isolation where possible, measures that have necessitated that seafood certifiers go virtual with their auditing processes.

Recognizing the safety concerns onsite audits pose amid the global pandemic, Milan, Italy-headquartered Friend of the Sea (FOS) has launched its Sustainable Augmented Reality Audits (SARA). SARA allows a qualified auditor to carry out an onsite inspection from a control panel that commands remote “eyes” and records a complete video of the audit, FOS said in a press release. The video and recording of the audit are immediately sealed via blockchain, preventing any possible editing.

FOS Founder and Director Paolo Bray said the move to a virtual auditing platform became a logical next step for the organization, which had requested that all of its employees carry out tasks by means of "smart working" in February, before it was mandated by law in Italy. Bray fully expects that virtual auditing innovations like SARA will pave the path to the future for certifiers, even once the pandemic has dissipated.  

“Onsite audits are unsustainable, dangerous for auditors and unreliable. Only sustainable, video-recorded and blockchained audits will be deemed acceptable and reliable,” Bray said. “Friend of the Sea project and the World Sustainability Organization are already carrying out their activities 100 [percent] online, so the recent switch to remote working came naturally.”

FOS has been undergoing a digitization process for some time now, Bray explained, which has culminated in the rollout of SARA.

“Over the past months and years we have undertaken a number of initiatives to move all our activity online. We have held several webinars instead of onsite events; we launched the Sustainable Marketplace online platform instead of onsite One to One Days,” Bray said.

Bray said the NGO has made its website its primary means of connecting with companies interested in certification and that it has invested time and money into search engine optimization to maximize its online impact. That digital effort is now being extended into the certification process itself, Bray said.

“The coronavirus outbreak experience led us to introduce an additional major innovation, perfectly matching our online strategy,” Bray said. “[Onsite audits require] days of global traveling to carry out few hours of [a] factory audit, which could be carried out more effectively with available remote video-recording platforms. Old-style factory audits are dangerous for auditors’ health and safety. In some cases, they are carried out at sites with live animals, with risk of infection. Last but not least, onsite audits potentially expose auditors to situations where integrity is compromised and may result in subjective conclusions. Only a full-blockchained video recording of the audit can represent undisputable evidence of compliance.”

Moving forward, FOS will save all of its audits to blockchain via SARA. Bray said the savings due to digitization, and positive industry reception, are already manifesting for the NGO.

“This way we are already saving tons of emissions, improving auditors’ health and safety and providing consumers with verifiable audits,” he said. “Companies have reacted positively as they understand the value of SARA’s audits, which allow them to optimize time and costs, while greatly increasing certification credibility.”

Third-party fishmeal and fish oil certification program MarinTrust, formerly known as IFFO RS, has also moved to adjust its auditing requirements during the COVID-19 crisis.

The program, as of 20 April, moved to invoke its process on handling remote MarinTrust Factory and MarinTrust Chain of Custody audits, setting up temporary requirements to be followed by its approved certification bodies until 30 September, 2020, or further notice – “whichever comes first,” MarinTrust said.

The policy will be reviewed on a monthly basis, with amendments made where applicable, “due to the fast-changing nature of this extraordinary event,” MarinTrust said.

The key components of MarinTrust’s updated protocol were listed by the program as follows:

  • Extended validity for current certificates due to expire in 2020. All re-certification applicants to either standard whose certification is due to expire in 2020 within the validity date of this policy (30 September, 2020), shall have their current certificate extended by a period of six months by their certification body from the date of certificate expiry. After this period, if an on-site audit cannot be done, MarinTrust together with the certification body, will decide if a remote audit would be appropriate.
  • Up to four additional months to conduct annual surveillance audits. All certified sites are required to have an annual surveillance assessment to maintain the continuity of their certificate for either the MarinTrust Factory standard or the MarinTrust CoC standard. Where an onsite audit is not possible in affected areas, this shall be scheduled from the 12-month due date of the surveillance and MarinTrust will permit a four-month window allowance to complete this audit after the original 12-month due date. Where an onsite audit is still not possible, the auditors may use their remote audit checklist. Sites who undergo a remote audit shall be required to have an onsite audit within six months of the remote audit.
  • Onsite audits still required for new applicants. All new applications to either standard shall have their onsite audit postponed for a period of six months or until the travel restrictions have been relaxed. This is to allow an approved auditor to conduct an on-site audit at these new facilities in a manner that is not imposing any safety issues to the auditor or the applicant.

“MarinTrust sends its best wishes to all stakeholders and interested parties during this unprecedented and difficult time,” the program said.  

Photo courtesy of Friend of the Sea

Want seafood news sent to your inbox?

You may unsubscribe from our mailing list at any time. Diversified Communications | 121 Free Street, Portland, ME 04101 | +1 207-842-5500