The Registrar Accreditation Board and U.S. industry executives have been working behind the scenes to make it easier and less costly for U.S. companies to earn international certification to standards like ISO 9000.

In recent months, with the backing of U.S. companies, the board has promoted two major mutual recognition agreements (MRAs) that signal greater harmonization of certification practices and less redundant certification and testing. This should translate into reduced costs down the road.Late last year, the board announced it had signed a recognition agreement with Canada. Last month in Guangzhou, China, the board and the American National Standards Institute - through their jointly managed National Accreditation Program - represented the United States at the signing of a multilateral agreement that unites the national accreditation bodies of the United States, Australia-New Zealand, Canada, China, Japan and the European Cooperation for Accreditation behind the International Accreditation Forum.

The forum is working to harmonize ISO 9000 accreditation practices worldwide. Individual European countries represented at the Guangzhou proceedings include Denmark, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and Britain.

''The purpose of the MRA agreement with Canada is to reduce costs for industry. It should cut down redundant audits on the accreditation level,'' says Joseph Dunbeck, the Registration Accreditation Board's chief executive.

However, Mr. Dunbeck is careful to point out that the Canadian MRA is taking place on the accreditation level, not the industry level. In other words, Canadian and U.S. accreditors - those that set the rules for registrars and auditors - have agreed to recognize each other's testing practices that are applied to registrars.

Registrars are the bodies that actually enter a company to conduct third-party certification.



If all goes as planned under the MRA process, registration practices eventually should be mutually acceptable between the United States and Canada. That should mean that companies in the United States would find their ISO 9000 certificates accepted by their Canadian counterparts, as long as the registrars involved have earned U.S. RAB accreditation.

There are 45 or so accredited registrars operating in the United States.

''The dialogue between the U.S. and Canada began as an outgrowth of the Nafta agreements,'' explains Mr. Dunbeck. ''What this MRA does is support the sense of the Nafta agreement to encourage trade between the U.S. and Canada.''

Although the North American Free Trade Agreement also includes Mexico, Mr. Dunbeck says the MRA in question is only between the United States and Canada.

''It just happened that the need, as expressed by our mutual customers, was stronger in the U.S. and Canada than in Mexico,'' he adds. ''There was no reason it couldn't have been conducted with Mexico.''

What does the MRA accomplish for Canadian and U.S. companies?

''There are really two components to this bilateral agreement. There's mutual recognition of each other's national accreditation programs. We are recognizing that the work that each of us does is equivalent in the conformity assessment side of life for quality management systems. This is not for environmental management systems,'' Mr. Dunbeck says. ''We pushed it through with the notion that in some time in the not-too-distant future, (these sorts of programs) will be expanded. That's quality management as opposed to environmental management systems,'' he says.



The second element of the MRA with Canada has an impact on industry.

''This is an opportunity for us to recognize the audit work the Canadians have done with their registrars, or for the Canadians to recognize the work RAB has done with U.S. registrars. Each registrar has a reduction in his costs of gaining accreditation, and that could be translated into a reduction in costs for U.S. companies seeking registration,'' Mr. Dunbeck says.

However, he warns industry not to expect immediate savings. Rather, reductions should eventually ''trickle down'' to industry as registrars experience savings on their end.

''It's too premature to determine the actual cost reduction to registrars. We haven't worked out procedures and protocols, and we will leave it totally to the registrars discretion to determine if they offer a price reduction,'' he says.



The RAB pursued the Canada recognition agreement even though there's a strong belief that the International Accreditation Forum eventually will handle mutual recognition agreements of this sort.

''This agreement preceded the acceptance of the IAF worldwide accreditation scheme and was in place before IAF matured,'' Mr. Dunbeck says.

The meeting of IAF members in China last month, along with the signing of the mutual recognition accord certainly signals maturation on IAF's part, says IAF Chairman Harry Gundlach.

Citing the ''very big steps forward that IAF has made,'' Mr. Gundlach noted that IAF members have agreed to incorporate the agency in Delaware, a move that will soon make IAF ''a legal entity, IAF Inc.,'' says Mr. Gundlach.

As for mutual recognition of IAF among signatory nations, Mr. Gundlach explains that ''for the time being, it is restricted to recognition of each other's work and to promote the acceptance of ISO 9000 certificates issued by one another's accredited certification/registration bodies.

''In other words, there's acceptance of the equality of each other's accreditations for quality system certification,'' he says.

France, Mr. Gundlach points out, has not signed the agreement because some accreditation bodies mix accreditation and certification tasks, which may be considered a conflict of interest under International Organization for Standardization guidelines.

No details of those reports were available at this writing.

There's much rejoicing since China has joined the IAF's ranks. A recent IAF survey indicates that the highest incidents of nonacceptance of foreign ISO 9000 certificates has taken place in China - a situation that is sure to ease now that China is on board with the IAF.

In other developments at the IAF session, members accepted a paper on alternative methods of registration, based on the results of a pilot program that Motorola and Hewlett-Packard have championed to streamline registration practices.

Mr. Gundlach also reports that IAF is considering creation of a global accreditation logo in an effort to continue to harmonize accreditation practices on a worldwide basis.