The long road to Codex food standards
Food standards make the world safer
When is parmesan cheese really Parmesan and who says so?
The answer to that question may come this week when the Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC) convenes for its annual meeting from 4 to 9 July 2005. CAC, a joint body of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) is composed of 171 member countries, plus the European Community. Since 1964, it has recommended internationally accepted standards for food safety and quality, as well as guidelines for the import and export of food.
It is the Codex Alimentarius Commission that approves recommended standards that determine when a fish can be labeled a sardine, or how much cocoa butter must be present in chocolate for it to be "real" chocolate, or how many bits of peel can be tolerated in a can of "whole peeled tomatoes."
Codex benefits consumers and producers
The CAC works with national governments to establish uniform worldwide product standards that can benefit producers and consumers alike. It constitutes a forum where member governments volunteer time, resources and energy to negotiate mutually agreeable solutions to protect the health of consumers and ensure fair practices in the food trade.
The CAC involves specialists in many food-related scientific disciplines, including food control regulators, food scientists and technicians, members of consumer organizations, production and processing industry representatives, and traders -- all of whom contribute to the formulation of Codex recommendations, which individual countries can then use as the basis for national regulation.
Trade can boost employment
The vibrant trade in food products, domestically, regionally and internationally, creates many jobs across a wide spectrum of disciplines, not only in agriculture, but in commodity markets, food industry, packaging, shipping, advertising and food retail, to name but a few. Trade in food can also have a positive impact on nutritional options in both developed and developing countries as it tends to lower the price of food in general and often makes a greater variety of foods available throughout the year.
The explosion in tourism and the increase in migration of people from one country and region to another have created a ready market for good foods from around the world.
When it comes to developing countries, many do not have the science-based technical and regulatory capacity to take advantage of consumer demand in developed countries for their local foods. Exporting food products requires meeting food safety and quality standards set by importing countries, which, in turn, are encouraged to base their regulations on Codex Alimentarius.
Codex standards set to protect consumers
The road to Codex is a long and winding one, but there is a reward for draft Codex standards that complete the eight-step journey to final adoption. According to Kazuaki Miyagishima, Secretary of the Codex Alimentarius Commission, "The process of setting food standards is rigorous and long and in most cases it is also costly. It has to be that way to ensure that the food consumers purchase is not only safe, but of the quality they expect."
Trade in raw and processed food is a $400 billion a year business. Meeting Codex standards can open doors to new trading partners, so countries strive to do so. For example, the Near East Coordinating Committee, one of CAC's six regional committees, met earlier this year in Amman, Jordan, bringing together food specialists from 14 of the 17 Near Eastern member countries to establish regional standards for a number of Near Eastern food specialties. The hope is to eventually propose these same standards to the CAC for global recognition.
Harmonizing food safety and quality standards across a region improves intra-regional trade and gives countries a stronger, unified voice in the CAC. It allows consumers to purchase foods they know and like with the confidence that they are safe and of good quality.
At the Amman meeting, the Committee approved three popular Middle Eastern foods moving them to Step 5 in the Codex standard-setting process. The foods were humus, a dip of puréed chickpeas with tehina, a sesame seed paste, and tehina itself. Ful medames, a dish of partially mashed fava beans laced with herbs, spices and oil, was also considered.
Food safety concerns countries around the world
Food safety has long been a critical issue for the Near East, where, as a whole, the region relies on imports for over 60 percent of its food supply. In some countries of the Near East that figure is as high as 90 percent. So, making sure that imported food is safe is an important concern of these countries. That is why just ahead of the Amman Codex meeting, they also participated in the FAO/WHO Regional Meeting on Food Safety for the Near East also held in Amman.
According to Mr Miyagishima, "Once products have a quality standard, their chances for worldwide recognition are improved. Standards facilitate not only trade in the region but also ensure that a product made in countries outside the region will be of the same quality."
To help developing countries meet the food quality and safety standards, FAO and WHO have a number of projects to assist them in building the scientific capacity that will be necessary to fully participate in the Codex standards setting process.
Participation in Codex by developing countries grows
Some 80 developing countries will be represented at the Codex annual meeting this July. A number of representatives from these countries will attend thanks to financial assistance from the FAO/WHO Trust Fund that became operational in 2004 to encourage greater participation in Codex by developing countries.
The delegates to the 28th Session of the Commission have much more to consider than when a cheese can be labeled Parmesan, though that may well be the one decision much of the public remembers, because the Commission could decide whether there can be a worldwide standard for cheese labeled Parmesan. This Codex ruling will have intellectual property implications, because a cheese produced in compliance with such a standard would be able to carry the name regardless of where it was produced.
Codex may adopt guidelines on vitamins and minerals
This year, for the first time, Codex will consider recommending that vitamin and mineral food supplements carry more consumer information. Vitamins and minerals are essential to human life, but taking supplements in excessive amounts can be harmful, a fact many people are unaware of. Codex is expected to adopt guidelines to ensure that consumers are informed of the maximum amounts that can be consumed safely. The guidelines are being proposed to protect and promote people's health and not to limit the production or variety of vitamins and mineral supplements available to consumers. To further support the guidelines, FAO and WHO are working on nutrient risk assessment methodologies for future use to identify upper consumption levels for nutrients and related substances.
Recommendations adopted by the Codex Alimentarius Commission may not all make the nightly television news, but they will affect the health and eating habits of billions of people around the world. When Codex wraps up its annual meeting, the world will have new food standards and other recommendations that will improve the health of consumers and make food purchasing choices easier with clear, straightforward labeling.
4 July 2005
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