FAO/WHO and Codex Alimentarius
In the 1950s food regulators, traders, consumers, and experts were looking increasingly to the FAO and WHO for leadership about the plethora of food regulations that were impeding trade and that for the most part were not providing adequate protection for consumers. As a result, the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) was estab-lished in 1956. Its remit now covers the evaluation of contaminants, naturally occurring toxicants and resi-dues of veterinary drugs in food. In the early 1960s a Joint FAO/WHO Meeting on Pesticide Residues (JMPR) was set up to provide independent scientific advice to the FAO and WHO with recommendations from panels of independent experts on the use of pesticides in agriculture and safe levels of residues in foods. The Joint FAO/WHO Meeting on Microbiological Risk Assessment (JEMRA) began in 2000. The aim of JEMRA is to optimize the use of microbiological risk assessment as the scientific basis for risk management decisions that address microbio-logical hazards in foods. Other examples of ad hoc joint expert consultations on new or emerging food and nutrition problems are the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Consultation on Acrylamide or the ad hoc Committee on Foods derived from Biotechnology.
The FAO also recognized the need for international agreement on food standards, labeling requirements, methods of analysis, etc. In 1963, the Sixteenth World Health Assembly approved the establishment of the Joint FAO/WHO Food Standards Program and adopted the statutes of the Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC).
The CAC is the pre-eminent global food standards organization and has had an important impact on food producers, processors, and consumers. The principal aims of Codex are to protect consumers’ health, ensure fair practices in the food trade by the development of science-based food quality and safety standards, guidelines, and recommendations, and promote coordination of all food standards work undertaken by governmental and international organizations. The harmonization of food standards facilitates trade between countries and underpins it with a guarantee that food that is traded will be safe and of the same quality as the same product made elsewhere. Membership of CAC is open to all member nations and associate members of the FAO and/or WHO. By 2007, some 174 countries and one Member Organization (European Community) were members. CAC meetings are held yearly and alter-nately at the FAO headquarters in Rome and the WHO headquarters in Geneva. At these meetings draft and final standards, guidelines, and codes of practice are adopted. Each member of the Commis-sion has one vote. Decisions of the Commission are taken by a majority of votes cast. Representation is on a country basis. National delegations are led by senior officials appointed by their governments. Delegations may include representatives of industry, consumers’ organizations, and academic institutions. Countries not members of the Commission sometimes attend in an observer capacity. A number of international governmental organizations and international NGOs also attend in an observer capacity. These organiza-tions may put forward their points of view at every stage except in the final decision, which is taken by member governments. The Commission and member governments have established country Codex Contact Points and many member countries have National Codex Committees to coordinate activities nationally.
Codex Alimentarius is the Latin name for food law or food code. The main aim of Codex is to define international standards, codes of practice, and other guidelines and recommendations. The main work on standard setting is carried out in more than 20 Codex Committees and Task Forces. These include commit-tees dealing with “vertical” and “horizontal” stan-dards, task forces dedicated to a particular task of limited duration and regional coordinating commit-tees. In addition, the experts’ meetings organized and supported by the FAO and the WHO, JMPR, JEMRA, and JECFA provide the scientific basis (risk assess-ment) for the work of the CAC. At the beginning the CAC concentrated on commodity standards called “vertical standards,” for example standards for cereals; fats and oils; fish and fish products; fresh fruits and vegetables; processed and quick frozen fruits and veg-etables; fruit juices; meat and meat products; milk and milk products; sugars, cocoa products, and choc-olate. In the 1980s it was generally agreed that diver-sification of food products was occurring so rapidly that the setting of detailed standards was in fact hindering trade. Thus a move toward “horizontal” standards began. “Horizontal standards” are general standards that have application across a wide range of foods, for example general principles: food additives and contaminants; food labeling; food hygiene, methods of analysis and sampling; pesticide residues, residues of veterinary drugs in foods; food import and export inspection and certification systems; nutrition and foods for special dietary uses. These standards are then published in one of the Codex’s 13 volumes. Codex standards pass through various stages of ratification by members – the eight-step process – the final one being that of acceptance. When members accept a Codex standard they are committed to allowing products conforming to that standard on to their market.
A major concern of national governments is that food imported from other countries should be safe and not jeopardize the health of consumers or pose a threat to health and safety of their animal and plant populations. So governments of importing countries introduce laws and regulations to reduce or eliminate such threats. In the food area these measures could become disguised barriers to trade as well as being discriminatory. One of the main prin-ciples of the Codex Alimentarius is that harmoniza-tion of food laws and adoption of internationally agreed standards would result in fewer barriers to trade and freer movement of food products among countries.
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