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    Global supply chains: The role of international standards and conformity assessment

     

     
     
    International Trade Forum - Issue 3/2010

    As global supply chains continue to grow, the international accreditation network, underpinned by internationally agreed standards, plays an essential role in the support of competitive markets and cross-border trade. This is increasingly important as businesses seek to lower costs or satisfy contract terms while maintaining a level of confidence that products are technically compatible, to specification and safe.

    In such complex markets, reassurance in the measurements, tests, inspections or certification that might be performed in another jurisdiction is essential. Without a level of confidence, the free exchange of goods and services risks being hampered by technical barriers, thereby increasing costs for importers and consumers.

    Such complexity also makes it cost-prohibitive for governments to undertake all the laboratory testing and certification necessary to protect public health and safety. The trend, therefore, is for governments to establish regulations which specify requirements to be met and procedures to be employed for demonstrating compliance, but to leave the private sector to conduct the actual process of verification of compliance.

    'Conformity assessment' refers to the process - including activities such as testing, certification and inspection - by which products and services are verified to meet standards or technical specifications. In the regulated sector, conformity assessments demonstrate compliance with legislative requirements and, in the voluntary sector, provide assurance to consumers and importers that the products and services they procure meet specification.

    Since conformity assessment bodies (CABs) are mostly commercial organizations, accreditation assesses and declares the technical competence of these organizations in order to provide confidence in their results or test data.

    Mutual recognition arrangements

    Internationally, two organizations coordinate accreditation: the International Laboratory Accreditation Cooperation (ILAC) and the International Accreditation Forum, Inc. (IAF - see box).

    The vision of these two organizations is to grant multilateral mutual recognition arrangements (MRA) between their accreditation body members. Both ILAC and IAF aim to demonstrate the equivalence of the operation of their member accreditation bodies through these arrangements.

    The principal aim of these arrangements is to support world trade by eliminating technical barriers to trade. The key to the arrangements is that the results of accredited organizations, when assessed by signatory accreditation bodies, are recognized as equivalent. In this way, certificates issued by accredited organizations can be accepted throughout the world.
      
    Increasing recognition
     
    In recent years, there has been a growing trend towards greater recognition of accreditation and the arrangements from governments and regulators. For example, in the Americas, regulators such as the Consumer Product Safety Commission for toy testing, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the nuclear area and the United States Environmental Protection Agency for the energy rating of products, have expressed their intention to rely on accredited laboratories. ILAC is now also mentioned as a key player by the United Nations.

    In the Asia-Pacific region, APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) endorses accreditation, with the Asia Pacific Laboratory Accreditation Cooperation recognized as an APEC Specialized Regional Body. Accreditation is now used to underpin the conformity assessment component of the APEC agreements. Similarly, ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) has included accreditation in the ASEAN sectoral MRA for electrical and electronic equipment as a means of meeting the mandatory requirements of each member and to facilitate the implementation of the ASEAN Free Trade Area.

    In Europe, Regulation 765 provides a legal framework for the provision of accreditation services across Europe. The regulation covers the operation of accreditation in support of voluntary conformity assessment as well as conformity assessment required by legislation.

    The mainstream acceptance of accreditation by both pan-regional bodies and domestic regulators within individual governments also helps WTO member governments to meet their responsibilities under the Technical Barriers to Trade Agreement and the Sanitary and Phyto-sanitary Measures Agreement.

    An expanding international network
     
    The development of standards and accreditation systems is spreading to new territories. The ILAC network of members has grown by 40% since 2001 to include 135 bodies covering 88 different economies. Similarly, the number of accredited laboratories has also grown by more than 40% since 2004 to 35,000, while the number of accredited inspection bodies has almost trebled over the last four years, from 1,842 in 2004 to 6,373 in 2009.

    This increase in the number of technically competent national accreditation bodies and accredited CABs has created a broader quality base to serve the needs placed on it through trade and regulatory requirements.




    ACCREDITATION BODIES

    IAF & ILAC

    The International Accreditation Forum (IAF), Inc. is the world association of conformity assessment accreditation bodies and other bodies interested in the fields of management systems, products, services, personnel and other similar programmes.

    For further information, visit www.iaf.nu.

    The International Laboratory Accreditation Cooperation (ILAC) is an international cooperation of laboratory and inspection accreditation bodies formed to help remove technical barriers to trade. It represents laboratory and inspection accreditation bodies from more than 70 economies and regional organizations.

    For further information, visit www.ilac.org.