Global players in food and nutrition regulation
Food and nutrition regulation spans the entire food chain – from processing of seeds, to planting seeds, to tilling crops, storage and harvest of crops, and sale of crops. Animal and fish farming are equally complex. Where these primary products enter the realm of the food processor, another range of regulations apply, for example what is permitted to be added to the food, what must be in a food (nutrition), what must not be in a food (pesticides), the physical and biological environment in which the food is processed, in addi-tion to packaging, labeling, transport, storage, sales, and advertising.
Globalization is one of the driving forces shaping the world economy and the pace of globalization of the food trade has accelerated in the past decades. New methods and technologies in food production and processing have contributed to this acceleration. Productivity of animals and crops has risen to unprec-edented levels. Globalization of the food trade bene-fits consumers in terms of quality, affordability, and guaranteed supply. It also offers diversity of products, which can contribute to improved nutrition and health. Globalization has been accompanied by evolv-ing governance issues that have produced regulation at a national and global level in an attempt not only to facilitate trade but also to establish and retain the confidence of the consumer in the food supply chain. The distances that food and feed are now transported potentially create conditions more conducive to con-tamination of the supply chain, where even a single source can have serious consequences.
Modern food and nutrition regulation must deal with this range of activity on a global scale and must be reviewed continuously to take account of issues such as food sources from new areas with differing climates, growing and harvesting techniques, and public health infrastructure. In addition, there are very many national approaches to food regulation reflecting different perceptions about the value of new technology, different degrees of protection given by governments to food producers, and even different interpretations of the science involved in the regula-tory process. The implication of globalization for food regulation therefore requires both international cooperation among national food regulators and the effective balancing of gains from trade with regula-tory differences.
Globally, a range of agencies plays a role in food and nutrition regulation. The UN was established in 1945 as was the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which was established as a specialized UN agency. The principal role of the FAO is the provision of food security for all. Coupled with this is its mandate to raise nutrition levels and agricultural productivity in order to raise the standard of living for rural com-munities and thereby contribute to the growth of the global economy.
The World Health Organization (WHO) is another agency of the UN and is a sister organization of the FAO. Established in 1948, its objective is the attain-ment by all peoples of the highest possible levels of health. The WHO is the directing and coordinating authority for health within the UN system. The WHO is governed by its member states through the World Health Assembly (WHA), which is composed of rep-resentatives from each member state. The WHO con-siders that freedom from hunger and malnutrition is a basic human right and alleviation of these global problems is fundamental for human and national development. While the WHO has traditionally focused on nutritional deficiency and associated mor-bidity and mortality, the issue of malnutrition char-acterized by obesity and the long-term implications of unbalanced dietary and lifestyle practices that result in chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes has assumed increasing importance in recent years. Countries, particularly developing countries where both under- and over-nutrition coexist, are of particular concern. In light of these challenges and trends the WHO aims to build and implement a science-based, comprehensive, inte-grated, and action/policy-oriented “Nutrition Agenda” at the global, regional and country levels that addresses the whole spectrum of nutrition problems towards attaining the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and other nutrition-related international commitments, including the prevention of the diet-related chronic diseases. The Millennium Declaration (later restated as MDGs with specific measurable targets that should be met by 2015) was signed by 147 heads of state in 2000 and passed unanimously by the members of the UN General Assembly. The MDGs seek to eliminate hunger, poverty, maternal and child malnutrition with particular emphasis on maternal and fetal undernutrition and malnutrition, and micronutrient malnutrition. The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) was established by the UN General Assembly in 1946. UNICEF provides long-term humanitarian and developmental assistance to children and mothers in developing countries with special emphasis on pregnancy, breastfeeding and the first 3 years of life.
In the 1950s food regulators, traders, consumers, and experts were looking increasingly to the FAO and WHO for leadership about the plethora of food regu-lations 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.