The UTZ standards are at the heart of the program, setting out requirements for sustainable farming and rules for how products should be handled in the supply chain. So how do we make sure farmers and companies follow the rules of the UTZ program? We caught up with José Manuel González, Certification Bodies Monitor at UTZ, who explains our strict audit system.

Following the UTZ standards

UTZ audit on a coffee farm in China

UTZ audit on a coffee farm in China

When a farmer joins UTZ, they need to follow our standards for sustainable farming. The Code of Conduct includes requirements on good agricultural practices, farm management, and social and environmental protections. And it doesn’t stop there; supply chain actors such as chocolate manufacturers, coffee roasters, or tea blenders have to follow strict rules on how they source and handle UTZ certified cocoa, coffee, or tea. These rules are brought together in the UTZ Chain of Custody.

“Our standards are the backbone of the UTZ program,” says José, “so certified farmers and supply chain actors are regularly checked to make sure the standards are followed.”

Our standards are the backbone of the UTZ program, so  certified farmers and supply chain actors are regularly checked to make sure the standards are followed.

Regular audits

Farmers are audited every year, and certified companies in the UTZ supply chain are audited every one to three years depending on their previous performance. In between these certification audits, all members have to do regular self-assessments, where they evaluate if they are on the right track and identify any areas where they need to improve their procedures.

Kenya coffee recordkeeping traceability

Record keeping on a coffee farm in Kenya

“These certification audits are carried out by independent, accredited auditing companies called Certification Bodies, under strict guidelines,” says José.

“In practice, this means that a team of auditors will visit a farm or a company. They check their record keeping, and do a thorough investigation of their practices, including observing the everyday operations and interviewing employees.”

Auditing farmers

“At each farm, the auditors will check that good agricultural practices have been applied, such as planting and maintaining shade trees, pruning, and proper use of agrochemicals. They also check that working conditions are safe, decent housing is provided where required, and natural resources are protected.”

“When they go to a farmer group or cooperative the auditors select a representative sample of the farmers within the group to be visited and interviewed directly – the square root of the total number of members. The auditor can choose which farms to visit and which people to interview. In addition, every single smallholder is inspected as part of the regular self-assessments done by the group.”

Certification is about making sure the strong systems are in place within a farmer group to ensure sustainability requirements are followed all year round. Therefore in addition to checking the practices on a representative sample of farms, a major focus of the audit is checking that these systems are in place: that accurate records have been kept of all the farmers in the group, what kind of training they received, and the results of internal inspections and self-assessments that have been carried out by the group itself.

Auditing companies

Coffee Roaster

Checking bags with coffee beans at a coffee roastery

And what about a company in the supply chain that receives an audit? José: “Companies are mainly checked on traceability and the physical and/or administrative separation of UTZ certified and non-certified goods. For example, they must be able to show that the UTZ certified coffee beans have been stored separately from the non-UTZ beans, or that in their system the amount of UTZ cocoa or tea purchased equals the amount that they’ve processed and sold. Also auditors must check that UTZ has given permission for the company to use the UTZ logo on their product packaging.”

Dealing with non-compliance

And if the audit discovers that the farm or company has not followed the standards correctly?

Warehouse UTZ cocoa in Cote d'Ivoire

UTZ certified cocoa stored in a warehouse in Côte d’Ivoire

“Auditors’ findings are essential to identify the gaps, so that members can take action on areas that need to be improved. Where there are areas of non-compliance, auditors follow up to check that these have been resolved,” says José. “If corrective actions aren’t taken, it can mean the farmer or company loses their UTZ certification.”

Every Certification Body also does some extra ‘surprise’ audits each year, visiting a farm or company unannounced to check that the rules are being followed even when they’re not expecting auditors.

“A risk assessment is carried out by the Certification Bodies to decide where to do these surprise audits, based on where we need extra assurance that the standards are being complied with,” José explains.

The value of independence

UTZ audit_checklist to be filled out

Auditor filling out a check list during the UTZ audit

“As these Certification Bodies are independent, they can be relied upon to do a good job – they don’t have any vested interest in the outcome going one way or the other,” explains José. “It also makes the whole system more transparent. The Certification Bodies must all have professional auditing qualifications and meet international standards as set out in our UTZ Certification Protocol.”

UTZ works with over 50 Certification Bodies around the world, to have global coverage and to encourage competition. This is designed to ensure the Certification Bodies provide the best possible service at a competitive price.

Auditing the auditors

We rely on the Certification Bodies to safeguard credibility of the program, so we have a whole team at our head office responsible for working with them.

“We train auditors on the UTZ standards, to make sure they are totally familiar with the content of the standards and how they should be applied in practice,” says José. “All the approved Certification Bodies are listed on the UTZ website.”

UTZ training for auditors and certfication companies in China

UTZ training for auditors in China

“After every audit, a report is sent to UTZ for us to check the audit was carried out properly.  We also do ‘shadow audits’, where we accompany auditors to check that their performance is in line with our requirements.”

UTZ shadow audit coffee plantation Brazil

José conducting a shadow audit on a coffee farm in Brazil.

And if the performance isn’t good enough? “If we find that a Certification Body has not been carrying out audits according to our rules, then we offer a timeframe to make improvements – and eventually, if necessary, we stop them from working with UTZ,” says José.

Assurance = Trust

“Ultimately, this is about trust and transparency,” says José. “External audits are a vital part of the assurance model that makes sure you can trust in UTZ.”

The full guidelines for the audit system can be found in our Certification Protocol.

Do you have a question after reading this article? Don’t hesitate to drop us a line at marketing@utz.org.