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Third Party Certification

Intellectual Merit

This proposal addresses the scientific and ethical dimensions of Third Party Certification (3PC) of standardized agricultural processes and products in a scientifically dynamic and socially contested global agrifood system. Third party certifiers are (private or public) organizations that use scientific theories, tests, and data as well as technical artifacts to independently verify production and product quality and safety claims. They are usually distinguished by their claimed independence from both buyer and seller. Third party certifiers play an increasing role in negotiating issues of risk in society; yet, little is known about the emerging forms, tools, and functions of third party certifiers in the agrifood sector, much less the scientific and ethical issues 3PC engenders.

While it has existed for some time, in recent years 3PC has grown considerably. In particular, 3PC has grown concomitantly with the development of what has been called an economy of qualities. This economy of qualities is marked by

  1. oligopolistic markets in which firms avoid price competition and focus instead on product differentiation,
  2. a growing global middle class, the members of which are eager to distinguish themselves through fashion, and
  3. a plethora of New Social Movements that place a variety of demands on industry for credence goods such as environmental and worker protection, food quality, and minimized pesticide residues. Under these conditions, many governments and firms have taken advantage of the flexibility and responsiveness to rapid change that 3PC permits. Moreover, certifiers appeal to technoscientific values such as independence, objectivity, consistency, competence, transparency, and effectiveness in an effort both to increase trust and public consent and limit liability.

Under these conditions 3PC claims to stabilize technoscientific devices and processes so as to reduce decision-stakes and resolve social conflict pertaining to standards. Still, it is unclear whether the shift from direct to mediated interaction (i.e., increased use of 3PC) resolves disputes arising from these issues among actors in the food supply chain, or whether it simply presents a changed social context for their continued contention. In theoretical terms, if social conflict lies at the root of scientific uncertainty in the food and agricultural standards process, then 3PC should be a relatively ineffective arbiter of conflict because it is not designed to address social structural issues. Conversely, if social conflict over food and agricultural standards arises from high degrees of scientific uncertainty, then 3PC should be a highly effective arbiter of social conflict because it claims to stabilize the technoscientific devices and procedures that are presumed to lie at the root of that conflict.

Using social theories of risk, we will examine 3PC in agrifood management contexts that raise interrelated empirical and ethical/value questions associated with the tension between science and society. These questions address the emergence, legitimation, and structure of 3PC as it mediates the apportionment of risk and information among affected populations. Central to these questions are ethical and value concerns involving the utility, fairness, and conflicts of interests associated with the rising importance of 3PC in the management of the global agrifood sector. We examine variance among these questions through a comparative analysis of 3PC applied in three exemplary cases of agrifood management:

  1. Animal Welfare in the Fast Food Industry,
  2. National Organic Standards for Crops, and
  3. Non-Genetically Modified Grains.

Our study utilizes a multi-method approach involving the following research activities:

  1. review of historical studies and primary documents;
  2. interviews with persons involved in the creation, modification, execution and enforcement of 3PC;
  3. a content analysis of the technical literature so as to understand the scientific claims made by 3PC;
  4. observation of training and certification processes to understand how 3PC is implemented and how ambiguous/disputed cases are handled; and
  5. philosophical analysis of the empirical data collected.


This study will help to clarify current concerns, and provide information for policymakers, about the efficacy, fairness, and risk mitigation strategies of 3PC, as well as make recommendations for improving the participatory character and transparency of the 3PC process. To that end, it will enhance the capacity of international trade organizations, national governments, private industry, non-governmental organizations, and other public interest groups to collaboratively manage the global agrifood system by sensitizing them to the social and ethical dimensions of agrifood 3PC.