International Food Standard Organization Faces Challenges

Article excerpt

A somewhat obscure international commission--the Codex Alimentarius Commission--that sets food safety guidelines based on science has recently become another arena for trade disputes. Arguments about scientific uncertainties relating to food safety and efforts to bring non-scientific concerns into the consultations threaten to politicize decision-making and undermine the work of the commission.

The Codex Alimentarius Commission is an international organization virtually unknown to the general public. Nevertheless, while Codex works in the shadow of more prominent U.N. organizations, the impact of its work is felt by consumers everyday. The name "Codex Alimentarius" itself explains the general purpose of the Commission's work--a code for food. The origins of the code go back to a collection of food standards assembled during 1897 and 1911 in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and used as a legal reference by the courts. Currently the commission deals with a wide range of food issues--from labeling and hygienic standards to such detailed work as defining what constitutes butter.

The Codex Alimentarius was established in 1962 as a cooperative program by the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO), and currently has over 160 countries as members. Its mission is to set international food standards that help governments to achieve adequate consumer protection. In addition, the commission helps to raise the governments' awareness on food safety issues and serves as a point of reference for food safety standards and food regulations. Codex also helps facilitate international trade in foods by preventing unscientific restrictions while considering differences in tradition, culture, and legal systems among countries. The commission develops principles of a general nature as well as specific recommendations for certain food products.

Currently, countries' delegations to the Codex Alimentarius consist of government officials but can also include industry or consumer representatives, as well as academic experts. The committees currently cover nine general subject areas, such as food labeling, and 13 commodities, such as meat, fish, and milk products. There are also three ad hoc intergovernmental task forces (foods derived from biotechnology, animal feeding, and fruit and vegetable juices).

How Food Standards Are Approved. Initially a proposal to develop a new food standard is submitted to the Codex Commission by either a government or a Codex subsidiary. The Commission or the executive committee then decides whether the proposal should proceed. A list of formal criteria helps to guide the Commission in its decision-making process.

After the Commission determines that a new standard is needed, a proposed draft standard is prepared and circulated among the members for comments. After consideration of comments, a draft standard is then presented to the Commission, and, if adopted by the Commission, is then sent to the governments. The process may involve sending the draft back and forth between the Commission and members before it may be adopted as a new Codex standard. This process involves eight official steps or, in the case of an accelerated procedure, five steps that have to be taken before a draft standard can finally be adopted--a procedure that usually takes several years. …