The French accreditation body COFRAC has closed a complaint filed by Oxebridge alleging conflicts of interest, citing a little-known clarification of accreditation rules by ISO’s CASCO committee.

The original complaint was prompted by an ISO Whistleblower Reporting system submission which revealed the certification body AB Certification had issued an ISO 9001 certificate to a competing certification body, COTECNA India. COTECNA also offers ISO 9001 certification and is accredited by COFRAC to ISO 17021-1, but the scope of the ISO 9001 certificate was related to another activity.

Oxebridge argued that the arrangement was a violation of a clause in ISO 1702101 which reads, “A certification body shall not certify another certification body for its quality management system.”

AB Certification’s director, Georges Abi Rached, denied the complaint outright, saying, “AB Certification issued an ISO 9001 certificate to COTECNA INSPECTION S.A. for its inspection activities as stated in the scope on the certificate and not for the certification activities performed in India under… accreditation.”

Rached provided no rule or interpretation to support his denial of the complaint, and had failed to recuse himself despite having personally issued the COTECNA certification. Rached then demanded that Oxebridge’s reporting on the matter be removed entirely. Oxebridge escalated the matter to COFRAC.

Now COFRAC has responded by closing the complaint in AB Certification’s favor, citing an obscure “clarification” allegedly issued by the ISO Committee on Conformity Assessment (CASCO), but quoted by the IAF regional body EA.

As per FAQ EA 40.08 (which is a CASCO clarification), “certification body can be certified to ISO 9001 for activities other than management system certification. The intent of clause 5.2.4 of ISO/IEC 17021:2015 standard is to allow a CB to certify compliance of another CB with standards such as ISO 14001 and ISO 27001 standards and for a CB that is carrying out activities different from management system certification activities to have these activities certified by another CB provided that all requirements of ISO/IEC 17021-1 including impartiality are complied with. Therefore a Management System certification body shall not certify another Management System certification body for its quality management system certification activities but can certify one for its ISMS, EnMS, RTMS, etc., if so requested.”

There is then no restriction that COTECNA INSPECTION India is certified QMS for its activities of inspection, provide testing, technical assistance and verification activities, while also accredited ISO/IEC 17021:2015 for its activities of certification body.

COFRAC did not provide the CASCO clarification itself. Searches on the ISO and IAF websites did not uncover the document, but a Google search of the EA website found the quote appearing on that bodies’ FAQ page here. That site says that CASCO issued a “clarification” in September of 2020 on the matter.

CASCO clarification on “intra-CB” certifications.

COFRAC later sent a link to the actual ruling, but it is buried in a deep link on the ISO website, here.

The CASCO clarification essentially adds words to ISO 17021-1 that do not exist. Whereas ISO 17021-1 clearly says one CB  cannot certify another CB “for its quality management system,” CASCO claims the standard was intended to mean “for its quality management system certification activities.” Those words do not appear in ISO 17021-1, however, and adding them undermines the standard’s reules on impartiality, Oxebridge argues.

COFRAC did not address at all the portion of the complaint regarding Rached’s refusal to recuse himself, but Oxebridge concedes the point is now moot.

Oxebridge requested that CASCO provide a link to where these interpretations are published so that the public can be made aware of them. The CASCO secretary then provided the following link:

Given the ruling, Oxebridge has closed the complaint and will not pursue it further. [Oxebridge has re-opened the issue. See UPDATE below.]

The situation is troubling, however, as it allows competing CBs to collude and form intricate conflicts of interest which, Oxebridge argues, inevitably can affect the objectivity and impartiality of certifications to ISO standards. “When competitors certify each other, the result cannot be trusted,” Oxebridge founder Christopher Paris said. “We can’t know if the certificate was issued out of fear of a lawsuit, or due to a corrupt handshake deal between the competitors. It also defies belief that intra-CB audits are comprehensive, as it would require one competitor to open their books to another.”

ISO’s CASCO committee works hand-in-hand with the IAF to draft the accreditation standards, often allowing them to be diluted in favor of the Accreditation Body and Certification Body representatives who universally comprise the committee. The COFRAC decision also reveals that there exist an entire set of hidden rules and “escape clauses” that permit ISO certification bodies to run roughshod over the published standards and general accreditation principles.

UPDATE 7 February 2022: Upon further investigation and consultation with one accreditation expert, Oxebridge has temporarily re-opened the complaint. In reviewing the CASCO clarification statement, it is clear that CASCO intended that one CB could issue an ISO 9001 quality certificate for another CB’s activities related to certification of other management systems. CASCO then provided examples such as ISO 14001 or ISO 45001.

The certificate issued by AB Certification to Cotecna, however, was for inspection and testing services. A review of the Cotecna India website then reveals that Cotecna issues test “certificates” using a platform called E-Dox. Therefore, Cotecna’s activities are not related to another management system, such as 14001 or 45001, but would be covered under an accreditation standard within the ISO 17000 family; specifically, either ISO 17065 for product certification or ISO 17020 for inspection services.

Under long-standing IAF and CASCO rules, these activities are not certified, but accredited, since the CB is issuing a certificate. Certifications cannot be issued to certification activities, which is the role of accreditation. The CASCO clarification does not give permission for one CB to issue a certificate to a subject that would be covered by accreditation.

Oxebridge has alerted COFRAC and IAF that it has re-opened the case, pending further investigation.

If left to stand, the COFRAC decision would make the entire ISO 17000 series of certifications moot, since companies could pursue ISO 9001 — which is often easier to implement and much less expensive — in lieu of accreditation. A calibration lab could pursue ISO 9001 instead of ISO 17025, for example, which would be dramatically less costly, since ISO 9001 does not require things such as uncertainty calculations or proficiency testing.

The matter shows the complex nature of relationships between bodies issuing certificates vs. accreditations, and how easily the oversight bodies themselves, such as IAF and COFRAC, can be confused by the differences.

Based on the results of new information, Oxebridge may demand the matter be re-examined.

UPDATE 9 February 2022. COFRAC has refused to re-open the matter, denying Oxebridge’s argument and insisting that CBs can issue ISO 9001 for scopes of certification work traditionally covered by ISO 17000 series accreditation standards. COFRAC then suggested the blame lies with the Indian accreditation body, NABCB, and suggested Oxebridge file a complaint with them, instead.

Cotecna received an ISO 17020 certificate in March of 2019 from NABCB, meaning that at the time AB Certifications issued its ISO 9001 certificate (in November of 2020), AB Certifications would have known they were certifying a scope that was already subject to accreditation; AB Certifications should have declined the work outright. Cotecna then moved its IAO 17020 to ANAB in January of 2022, complicating matters further.

The IAF scheme claims to provide cross-border recognition but in such matters, it quickly becomes impossible to process complaints when the parties allege jurisdictional restrictions. In this case, the matter spans multiple countries – India, France, Switzerland, and the USA — meaning EA can reject an escalation purely by pointing to another regional body.

The matter is likely to remain unresolved not for a lack of merits, but because the IAF bodies can use confusing jurisdictional rules — invented from thin air — to avoid processing the complaint.




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Why we report on these topics

Since 2000, Oxebridge has worked to improve ISO and related certification schemes by identifying problems and then proposing solutions. We report on issues affecting standards users because so few other news outlets do. Our belief is that in order to fix the problems in these schemes, we must first understand the nature and breadth of those problems. Our reporting aims to do just that. Elsewhere on the Oxebridge site you will find White Papers and other articles proposing ideas to correct these problems.