Codex Alimentarius: Towards a Global Food Law?
Speech by Martin Frid at the EU Latin American Consumer Conference in
Food Safety Working Group
25 January 2001
Codex Alimentarius: Towards a Global Food Law?
Here is an image for you to better understand the international body that
regulates the foods we eat - think of spending three days more or less
locked up in a really stuffy room. Delegates may be talking about a certain
pesticide residue text, trying to agree on a figure that is neither too low
nor too high. Or they have to decide on how much fish there should be in a
frozen fish stick. Or they try to agree (no kidding) to call bottled water
just that: "Bottled water." It usually gets rediculously technical. On the
one hand, you have to set a residue value that allows, say, carrots or
potatoes to be traded accross borders. On the other hand, you don't want to
expose consumers to unnecessary harm. Or do you?
If you are a government delegate to a Codex Alimentarius meeting, you may be
agreeing on a lot of things that can actually cause acute sickness and even
death to many ordinary people. That is a consequence of the fact that global
trade in foods has become such a massive industry. Any little outbreak of
food borne disease can affect the lives of people around the World in days,
if not hours. As a delegate, you will have a mandate to allow certain
amounts of hundreds, even thousands, of toxic chemical substances on food or
it would simply not be possible for countries to profit from their huge
Another way of looking at the Codex Alimentarius is to admit that without
it, globalization as we know it would not be possible. The Codex
Alimentarius Commission was set up in 1962 by the United Nation. Since the
GATT Uruguay Round decided to create the World Trade Organization in 1995,
Codex has become the single most important body for setting food standards
to facilitate trade between member countries. Many countries that have not
developed their own national food legislation rely on Codex standards. A
direct result of the World Trade Organization agreement is that developing
countries now can take a more prominent role in Codex, if Washington D.C.
and Brussels would only let them.
Codex standards are generally developed by consensus and should be based on
the best scientific and technical advice available. Consumers International
and many of its members have decided to increase involvement in Codex and
more resources are being committed to ensuring that government delegates
understand the health concerns that often run counter to demands from the
food industry or the transnational chemical companies. One area were
consumer groups have unique skills and experiences that may guide and assist
Codex is in the field of food labels. Labels with information on packages is
a major trade-related topic that often cause trouble as opinions diverge on
what consumers have a right to know or not. In spite of almost ten years of
discussions, Codex has still not been able to develop any standards for
labels of genetically modified foods. As for irradiated foods, Codex has
managed to agree on a so-called radura label that the industry still refuses
In a poll carried out by Consumers International a few years ago, 60 percent
of consumer organizations in Western Europe and Northern America said they
were invited by their governments to participate in Codex discussions at the
national level, compared to just 25 percent of those in Eastern and Central
Europe and 27 percent of those in Asia and the Pacific. Only 32 percent of
respondents in the Consumers International poll thought that they had an
influential role in national Codex consultations. "We are seeking a more
significant role in the development of US positions, earlier in the
process," said Ned Groth of the US Consumers Union.
Conspiracy Theory Confirmed?
While observers are allowed at many Codex meetings, the Executive Committee
that makes the proposals for the general orientation of the work program
does not let any outsiders know what happens at its meetings. Also, two
important technical committes that advice on food additives and pesticide
residue do not allow observers or consumer representatives. It is the view
of FAO and WHO that the presence of observers at the Joint Expert Committee
of Food Additives (JECFA) or Joint Expert Meeting on Pesticide Residue
(JMPR) meetings could establish an atmosphere of influence, according to a
controversial 1997 text. In Canada, senator Eugene Wheelan recently stated
that he would not be impressed by any testimony quoting WHO, FAO or Codex
because "The big companies sit behind them, and tell them what to do."
Obviously it is a tremendous problem that we cannot join the meetings that
matter if we also cannot influence Codex through our own government
delegates. Civil society organizations are experiencing that we cannot
effectively participate in the most important international work related to
health and consumer protection. One solution: certain countries like Norway
and India have let representatives from consumer organizations travel to
Codex meetings as part of the national delegations. One improvement recently
is that Codex documents are now usually published on the Internet which
makes it easier to at least know what is going to be discussed and when.
Codex standards are supposed to be based on "sound science" which is a vague
term that lacks credibility with consumer organizations. Bengt Ingerstam of
the Konsument-Forum summarised the sentiments of many groups in stating that
"for non-specialists it is hard to enter Codex discussions. It is almost as
if the specialists want to keep the discussions difficult." Codex meetings
are a long process that can continue for years in stuffy rooms without any
real solutions on thorny issues. At least they have banned smoking during
meetings these days. A government official once said to me that very few
people has the physical stamina to actually sit for so many hours and listen
as the consensus-building supposedly takes place. Welcome to the real world
of global food legislation.
* Morris, Kelly. "Bovine somatotropine - who's crying over spilt milk?" The
Lancet, Volume 353, January 23, 1999.
* McCrea, Diana. "Codex Alimentarius - in the consumer interest?" Consumer
Policy Review July/August 1997, Volume 7, Number 4.
* Davies, Sue (ed.). "Under wraps - what lies behind the label?" Policy
Paper by Consumers' Association, November 1997.
* Dee, Sharon. "Inside the Codex" World Consumer, 1996, Number 218.
* Avery, N et al. "Cracking the Codex" National Food Alliance Publication,