The Codex Alimentarius always looms in the background, but few of those who work in the food business know how it works in detail and fewer ever get in touch with it. Many have a feeling for its importance for food safety regulation in general though. A reason to have a closer look at this international institution which is with us since 1963 when it has jointly been established by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO).
It is important to differentiate between the Codex Alimentarius itself and the Codex Alimentarius Commission. The Codex Alimentarius essentially is an agreement between all participating nations over specific rules for food safety regulation. The Codex Alimentarius’ aims are “protecting the health of consumers and ensuring fair practices in the food trade” (Codex Statutes, Article 1). The Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC) is the international body which writes, issues and revises the Codex. It brings together 185 nations and 1 member organization (the European Union). For comparison, the United Nations (UN) comprises 193 member states. The CAC can thus claim to represent 99 per cent of the world population. Additionally, 224 organisation have been granted observing status of which 52 are international governmental organisations, 157 non-governmental organisations (representing civil society and business), and 15 UN organisations. The annual CAC plenary session easily involves 500 and more participants.
Why it is important
The CAC develops and adopts standards, guidelines, codes of practices, and recommendations. The rules published can by concerned with commodities, contaminants, food additives, pesticides, and veterinary drugs in food or even with broader topics such as labelling, transport, inspection, certification systems, ethics and good farming, food hygiene practices and the methods of risk assessment. In over 50 years of work, the CAC has issued several hundred standards, thousands of maximum residue levels, and dozens of guidelines and codes of practices.
CAC itself cannot enforce any of the rules set. Codes of practice and guidelines are even officially voluntary and do not require to undergo an acceptance procedure by the participant states. However, since the establishment of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1994, the Codex Alimentarius is referred to by the WTO rules as the yard stick against which food safety regulation of any WTO member state is measured in case of disputes. Codex thus indeed is authoritative for global food safety regulation.
How it works
Codex work is for the most part conducted by committees. Of the currently 23 committees ten deal with general subjects like food additives, seven work on commodities like fish or fruits and 6 serve coordination purposes separated by regions. Additionally, task forces are established whenever specific issues need in-depth discussion for a limited period of time. For example, there has been a task force on foods derived from biotechnology. The Executive Committee acts on behalf of the CAC between its annual assemblies. It consists of the chairperson of the CAC and three vice-chairs. Furthermore, six coordinators and seven persons each representing a geographical region are elected in the Executive Committee by the CAC members.
Crucial to the work of the CAC, however, are three bodies which are not part of the CAC. These experts meetings are likewise organised and supported by WHO and FAO and provide scientific risk assessments: the Joint FAO/WHO Meeting on Pesticide Residues (JMPR), the Joint FAO/WHO Meeting on Microbiological Risk Assessment (JEMRA) and the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA). When CAC sets standards, it does so by referring to the advice of these groups of scientists.
After the development of a standard has been proposed by either a member state or a committee and accepted by the CAC (or alternatively by the Executive Committee), the responsible committee mandates an expert meeting to conduct the risk assessment. Once a risk assessment is accomplished and reported back, the actual development of the standard is done by the committee. The clearly defined procedure for standard development is based on eight steps which also regulate consultation of member states and stakeholders as well as the involvement of other committees where applicable. At the end of this process, the CAC itself votes on the adoption of the standard. Changes of the text still occur at this step of the process. Decisions are taken based on the UN principle of “one nation, one vote” and a simple majority of the members present and participating in the vote is sufficient. Most decisions, however, are taken unanimously. The development of standards usually takes several years. As a committee chair pointed out, the approaches and experiences of the committee leaders are a crucial factor for the success and speed of the committees’ work.
A word on China and the CAC: By the turn of the millennium, China was virtually non-existing in CAC’s work. A former delegate to the CAC said, he first saw a representative of China in a meeting in the early years of this millennium, silently observing. This low-key approach has changed dramatically. In a quick and surprising move, China took over the lead of the committees on pesticides and food additives in 2006.
CAC decisions and even the state of discussions within the CAC and its committees are easily accessible via the CAC website. For those, who want to get to the bottom of it: CAC meetings are open to the public.
What do you find in the Food Compliance Cloud?
Selerant has collected all Food Additives and Contaminants standards into the compliance cloud, providing a single database to access the data and compare with standards from several countries around the world. To access the Compliance Cloud click here