Perspectives

The Importance of Standards: Defining Safe "Solid Surfaces"

Moving far past caveat emptor and information asymmetry with new regulations.

by Paul "Max" Le Pera

In the marketplace, including with hard surfaces, there’s always the notion that “you get what you paid for.” The real question is, however, do you know what you’re getting? “Let the buyer beware” is the English version of the legal principle of caveat emptor. Loosely translated, it means that a buyer must perform due diligence in research when making a purchase and then decide accordingly. A product is accepted as is; effectively creating a disclaimer of warranty by the seller. At its origin, sellers tended to use this principle as their exculpatory clause for issues experienced by the buyer after purchasing. Over time, however, sellers were tending to hide behind this veil while neither being forthright nor fully transparent about product quality or attributes. Going one step further, some companies leveraged the principle to engage in outright fraud – where not only was misinformation abounding, but fraud equally committed by the cognizant omission of information that would be material to the purchaser. The evolution of Product Liability Law and holding sellers substantially more accountable developed into the concept of information asymmetry, where a seller retains substantially more information than the buyer about a product and isn’t forthcoming with such, and placing the buyer in an unreasonable disadvantage. With information asymmetry, the seller can be held liable. It’s led to caveat venditor, providing a larger and stronger veil of protection for the buyer when there is a disproportion of power between the buyer and the seller.

With the proliferation of the building materials industry over the last few decades, especially in the kitchen & bath market, there’s been an explosion of product offerings, brands, variants, usage, selling channels and geographic sourcing. Competition for market share has spawned many strategies and invariably some of these lead to formulation changes (via technology and or raw materials), typically focused on reducing cost. There is little to no legal obligation, however, for manufacturers to report on these formulation changes, or even disclose that the changes would (negatively) challenge well-accepted norms and expectations. This rather substantial “grey hole,” as I like to call it (aka, a region of “mass ambiguity”), leaves anyone in the buying chain unduly vulnerable and in peril of making a costly or inappropriate decision … including specifiers, fabricators, distributors, retailers and end users. The use of standards is a solution gaining much favor in recent years helping to assuage this conundrum of legal greyness, providing users unbiased information enabling a more-comprehensive due-diligence path in making purchases. With the proliferation of surfacing brands, alternatives and formulation variants, even standards require constant adaptation in a rapidly mutating environment. NSF International (formerly known as, The National Sanitation Foundation) is a trusted and valuable resource for users in the surfacing industry (and countless others). As an independent, global organization, NSF facilitates the development of standards and provides accredited third-party certification that tests and certifies products.

The NSF's definition of "solid surface" includes polyester, acrylic, engineered stone and quartz/resin materials.

The purpose of these standards and certification is to protect public health. Manufacturers look to NSF International to verify their products are food-safe and hygienically designed through voluntary testing and, ultimately, certify their products and offer consumers an unbiased confirmation that the products demonstrate hygienic quality, use non-toxic materials and meet a very well-defined set of standards – ultimately serving to increase their confidence and level of due diligence. Surfacing manufacturers, as part of the certification process, submit documentation for their product including formulation information. NSF performs a review of the product, documentation and formulation information to the applicable requirements of NSF/ANSI 51. Once the solid surfacing is certified, the manufacturer is required to submit any changes or modifications they make to their formulation to NSF to verify compliance to NSF/ANSI 51 requirements, and identify and complete any necessary material reviews required. (And don’t be thinking that this just applies to acrylic “solid-surface” sheets – I’ll get to that shortly.) If a manufacturer would like new models or materials to be NSF-certified, it needs to submit documentation for review, and NSF will determine any applicable requirements as part of the certification process. This is why NSF certification is so valuable. NSF reviews these formulations and applies the requirements of the standard accordingly, ensuring the product will not leach harmful chemicals into food. The use of standards is critically vital to our industry and the protection of the consumer. The NSF Mark is one of the best ways to signify to customers and public health inspectors that the product meets applicable North American regulatory requirements. These standards also provide the backbone to substantially mitigate this tug-of-war between caveat emptor and caveat venditor. In 2019, NSF responded to some areas of the “grey hole” vagueness of surfaces by adding a succinct definition of solid surface. NSF defines solid surface as a solid material with uniform composition throughout used in the manufacture of equipment surfaces. These materials include but are not limited to polyester, acrylic, engineered stone and quartz/resin-based materials. (If you’re dealing with porcelain and ceramic-type products, keep reading – I’ll get to that as well.) In NSF/ANSI 51-2019, a new section includes very specific language requiring solid-surface materials to meet food zone requirements for certification, and NSF 170 goes further to define solid surface to be a solid, uniform material throughout. Molded, formed and laminated surfaces, for examples, would not be considered solid and uniform throughout, since there is a top layer that could become compromised and expose an inner-core material that is not acceptable. The term solid and uniform throughout also eliminates concerns over peeling or a layering effect of the material that could lead to core exposition. Manufacturers previously may have certified their products only to a lesser-degree of food interaction, formerly known as “splash zone.” That’s also changed; materials will now require re-certification for Food Zone application and have the balance of 2020 for this transition. Starting in 2021 there will no longer be solid-surface materials certified only for splash zone applications.

Since there are so many surfacing options available these days with their own unique set of value propositions, it should never be assumed a material could be certified to NSF standards.

The prolific nature of surfacing materials and options may ultimately be good for consumers via more choices and the ability to have a material used in settings that require specialized performance attributes. This fact, however, necessarily increases the urgency for NSF certification of the material desired to be specified and installed. There are two other highly consequential aspects of NSF solid-surface certification. The first, is that the specifier must be mindful that an NSF-certified solid-surfacing material is only certified as the material itself, and does not mean the way it is installed or used will meet the standard requirements. The method of installation, how it is cut, worked or finished may alter the original characteristics of the material. Material requirements are just one component of NSF Certification – once installed on a piece of equipment, there are other applicable design, construction and performance requirements to consider. The second is that per NSF/ANSI 51, there are materials that are glass-like, such as porcelain or ceramic-type materials. As part of certification, NSF will assess each porcelain or ceramic-type material accordingly to the applicable requirements in NSF/ANSI 51 to meet the intent of the standard. Users will need to be diligent in their assessment of using a product – defined as porcelain, ceramic, sintered, ultra-compact, among others – that may conform to Standard 51 as a material but not in end application that is intended for impact by hard objects during normal use as denoted in NSF/ANSI 51 Section 4.2.4. I have spent a substantial amount of time recently working with NSF International to better understand how their standards are created, how they work to protect the consumer, food safety and public health and how the standards can adapt to product variants that enter the market. It is critical to remember, however, that NSF International’s purpose is to safeguard consumers by creating standards that protect and improve public health with which manufacturers of surfacing materials can seek certification, thereby imparting a much-higher comfort level to everyone involved when evaluating materials for various commercial applications. The use of Standards is increasingly important in such a rapidly developing surfacing industry. NSF International is a truly invaluable resource to users, as well as manufacturers desiring third-party certification and willing to be transparent with their production process and materials. As additional standards are developed, I suspect there will be an increasingly stringent set of standards to which materials will need to be certified to be worthy of the NSF mark, and I look forward to following the evolutional journey. For a listing of NSF-certified products visit http://info.nsf.org/Certified/Food. You can write or call NSF International with any questions or comments at the following: NSF International P.O. Box 130140 789 N. Dixboro Road Ann Arbor, MI 48105, USA info@nsf.org p +1 734 769 8010 f +1 734 769 0109

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