While long meetings are being held this summer at the WTO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, another group, the Codex Alimentarius (the food code) Commission, will meet in Geneva on July 3-7 and also have an impact on international trade. Usually referred to as Codex, it was created by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) in 1963 to develop food standards, codes of practice, guidelines and other recommendations to protect the health of consumers and ensure fair practices in trade. It currently has 173 member countries.
Codex is grounded in sound science and deliberate decision making and at times is painstakingly slow in arriving at decisions. It works through a set of committees made up of representatives of member countries that recommend principles and guidelines to be adopted by the Codex Commission. The committees include commodity specific committees and general subject committees for issues like food additives and contaminants, food labeling, pesticide residues, nutrition and foods for special dietary uses and residues of veterinary drugs in foods. A Task Force on Foods Derived from Biotechnology was created for 1999-2003 and reestablished for 2005- 2009. Its first tasks include a safety assessment of foods derived from recombinant-DNA animals and a food safety assessment of foods derived from recombinant-DNA plants modified for nutritional and health benefits.
Codex standards are not meant to substitute for national legislation. Importers and exporters of products must comply with the laws and administrative procedures of each country. Countries retain their national sovereignty over food regulations. National laws based on Codex standards reduce the potential for artificial trade barriers.
The Committee on Food Import and Export Inspection and Certification Systems (CCFICS) handles standards for foods moving in international trade and regulations applied by governments to assure that foods and production systems protect consumers against food-borne hazards and deceptive marketing practices. At its latest meeting the CCFICS had 224 participants representing 82 member countries and a few international organizations. Ongoing difficulties in efforts to have U.S. beef accepted in Japan and Korea are examples of the importance of having both export and import inspections systems based on sound science such as those promoted by Codex.
Codex should not be confused with the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) established in 1947 as a federation of the national standards bodies of now 149 countries from all regions of the world that develops international standards mainly for industry. ISO has observer status at Codex meetings. Both groups are involved in developing standards for food products, and their work is often complementary. Efforts are being made to increase cooperation between the two groups to provide consistency and avoid duplication of effort.
The Uruguay Round Agreement which created the WTO on January 1, 1995 brought Codex further involvement in international trade. The Sanitary Phyto-Sanitary (SPS) Agreement and the Technical Barriers to Trade (TNT) Agreement recognize the standards, guidelines and recommendations established under Codex for food additives, veterinary drug and pesticide residues, contaminants, methods of analysis and sampling, and codes and guidelines of hygienic practice as scientifically justified and accepted as the benchmarks against which national government regulations are evaluated. Codex is also referenced in bilateral trade agreements such as U.S.-Australia Free Trade Agreement and DR-CAFTA. Codex standards are cited in two NAFTA ancillary agreements as basic requirements to be met on health and safety aspects of food products.
A Codex Commission meeting is not for the weak of heart or mind. The draft of the U.S. government position on the issues on the July meeting agenda is 82 pages long. Issues for final approval from the Committee on Food Import and Export Inspection and Certification Systems include Principles and Guidelines for Imported Food Inspection Based on Risk and Principles for Traceability/Product Tracing as a Tool within a Food Import and Export Inspection and Certification System. The U.S. government’s draft position supports these sets of principles. Further down in the approval process is a proposed draft from the Committee on Methods of Analysis and Sampling on Guidelines for Settling Disputes over Analytical (Test) Results.
The CCFICS has also been working on Proposed Draft Appendices to the Codex Guidelines on the Judgment of Equivalence of Sanitary Measures Associated With Food Inspection and Certificates Systems. A working group led by the U.S. is developing annexes on: 1) documentation for evaluation of submissions of requests for equivalence determinations; 2) determining an objective basis of comparison; and, 3) more detail on the process of judging equivalence. Progress on these efforts will be reviewed by the committee when it meets again in November of this year.
International trade for the U.S. would be much easier if everyone in the world simply adopted the existing U.S. standards. While the U.S. standards are not perfect, they have a solid track record of preventing food-borne illnesses and reducing trade in adulterated food products. Many U.S. trading partners also have good food safety records and have interests that differ somewhat from those in the U.S. The best option for the U.S. is to be at the table in groups like Codex to ensure that sound science sets the standards for the world.