The officials and experts who laid the foundations and determined the direction taken by activities of the Joint FAO/WHO Food Standards Programme and the Codex Alimentarius Commission were first and foremost concerned with protecting the health of consumers and ensuring fair practices in the food trade. They felt that, if all countries harmonized their food laws and adopted internationally agreed standards, such issues would be dealt with naturally. Through harmonization, they envisaged fewer barriers to trade and a freer movement of among countries, which would be to the benefit of farmers and their families and would also help to reduce hunger and poverty. The founders concluded that the Codex Alimentarius would be a panacea to some of the difficulties that were impeding freedom
of trade, a view that is reflected in the General Principles under Purpose of the Codex Alimentarius.
The volume of world food trade is enormous and is valued at between US$300 billion and $400 billion.
A principal 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 the health and safety of their animal and plant populations. Consequently, governments of importing countries have introduced mandatory laws and regulations to eliminate or minimize such threats. In the area of food, animal and plant control, these measures could be conducive to the creation of barriers to inter-country food trade.
The General Principles of the Codex Alimentarius state:
"The publication of the Codex Alimentarius is intended to guide and promote the elaboration and establishment of definitions and requirements for foods to assist in their harmonization and in doing so to facilitate international trade."
The Uruguay Round Agreements represent a milestone in the multilateral trading system because, for the first time, they incorporated agriculture and food under operationally effective rules and disciplines.
Country participants in the round of negotiations recognized that measures ostensibly adopted by national governments to protect the health of their consumers, animals and plants could become disguised barriers to trade as well as being discriminatory. Consequently, the SPS and the TBT Agreements were included among the Multilateral Agreements on Trade in Goods, annexed to the 1994 Marrakesh Agreement which established the Word Trade Organization (WTO).
The Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures acknowledges that governments have the right to take sanitary and phytosanitary measures necessary for the protection of human health. However, the SPS Agreement requires them to apply those measures only to the extent required to protect human health. It does not permit Member Governments to discriminate by applying different requirements to different countries where the same or similar conditions prevail, unless there is sufficient scientific justification for doing so.
The Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade seeks to ensure that technical regulations and standards, including packaging, marking and labelling requirements, and analytical procedures for assessing conformity with technical regulations and standards do not create unnecessary obstacles to trade.
It is noteworthy that the SPS and TBT Agreements both acknowledge the importance of harmonizing standards internationally so as to minimize or eliminate the risk of sanitary, phytosanitary and other technical standards becoming barriers to trade.
In its pursuance of harmonization, with regard to food safety the SPS Agreement has identified and chosen the standards, guidelines and recommendations established by the Codex Alimentarius Commission for food additives, veterinary drug and pesticide residues, contaminants, methods of analysis and sampling, and codes and guidelines of hygienic practice. This means that Codex standards are considered scientifically justified and are accepted as the benchmarks against which national measures and regulations are evaluated.
Considerable interest in the Commission's activities has been stimulated by the specific recognition of Codex standards, guidelines and recommendations within the SPS Agreement as well as the importance assumed by Codex standards in the Technical Regulations and Standards provisions contained in Article 2 of the TBT Agreement. Consequently, attendance at Codex meetings, especially by developing countries, has markedly increased. This is a welcome development, particularly since both Agreements direct members, within the limits of their resources, "to play a full part" in the work of international standards organizations and their subsidiaries.
The adoption of Codex standards as scientifically justified norms for the purpose of the SPS and TBT Agreements is of immense significance. The standards have become an integral part of the legal framework within which international trade is being facilitated through harmonization. Already, they have been used as the benchmark in international trade disputes, and it is expected that they will be used increasingly in this regard.
Article 2.2 of the SPS Agreement states:
"Members shall ensure that any sanitary and phytosanitary measure is applied only to the extent necessary to protect human, animal or plant life or health, is based on scientific principles and is not maintained without sufficient scientific evidence ..."
Article 3.1 of the SPS Agreement states:
"To harmonize sanitary and phytosanitary measures on as wide a basis as possible, Members shall base their sanitary and phytosanitary measures on international standards, guidelines or recommendations, where they exist, except as otherwise provided for in this Agreement."
Article 2.6 of the TBT Agreement states:
"With a view to harmonizing technical regulations on as wide a basis as possible, Members shall play a full part, within the limits of their resources, in the preparation by appropriate international standardizing bodies of international standards for products for which they have either adopted, or expect to adopt, technical regulations."
The work of the Codex Alimentarius Commission goes beyond creating means of removing barriers to trade. It also includes encouraging food traders to adopt voluntarily ethical practices as an important way of protecting consumers' health and promoting fair practices in the food trade. To this end, the Commission has published the Code of Ethics for International Trade in Food, which is included in the Codex Alimentarius.
A principal objective of the Code of Ethics is to stop exporting countries and exporters from dumping poor-quality or unsafe food on to international markets. The code is currently being updated to reflect the impact of the SPS, the TBT and other agreements on international trade.
Code of Ethics for International Trade in Food
4.1 International trade in food should be conducted on the principle that all consumers are entitled to safe, sound and wholesome food and to protection from unfair trade practices.
4.2 No food should be in international trade which:
The Uruguay Round Agreements provide for groups of member countries to enter into trade agreements among themselves for the purpose of liberalizing trade. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between Canada, the United States and Mexico is such an agreement. Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay have signed the Treaty of Acunción establishing the Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR). In Asia and the Pacific, 18 countries have formalized economic cooperation arrangements under the title, Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Council.
All three organizations have adopted measures consistent with principles embraced by the Uruguay Round Agreements and which relate to Codex standards.
NAFTA includes two ancillary agreements dealing with sanitary and phytosanitary measures and technical barriers to trade. With regard to SPS measures, Codex standards are cited as basic requirements to be met by the three member countries in terms of the health and safety aspects of food products.
MERCOSUR's Food Commission has recommended a range of Codex standards for adoption by member countries and is using other Codex standards as points of reference in continuing deliberations.
APEC has drafted a Mutual Recognition Arrangement on Conformity Assessment of Foods and Food Products. This calls for consistency with SPS and TBT requirements as well as with Codex standards, including the recommendations of the Codex Committee on Food Import and Export Certification Systems.
In addition, EU directives frequently refer to the Codex Alimentarius as the basis for their requirements.