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Codex Alimentarius: Towards a Global Food Law?

Speech by Martin Frid at the EU Latin American Consumer Conference in
Cartagena, Colombia
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 agricultural sectors.

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.

Opinions ignored

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 to use.

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, 1993.

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