From their beginnings, FAO and WHO have assisted in the improvement of quality and safety standards applied to food. The highest priority of the Codex Alimentarius Commission, as stated in Article 1 of its statutes, is to protect the health of consumers and ensure fair practices in the food trade.
Other UN bodies have also recognized the importance of consumer protection, and in 1985 a UN General Assembly resolution gave rise to the Guidelines for consumer protection, published in 1986. These guidelines identify food as one of three priority areas that are of essential concern to the health of consumers, and the document specifically identifies the Codex Alimentarius as the reference point for consumer protection with regard to food.
Two relevant conferences held early in the 1990s were: the 1991 FAO/WHO Conference on Food Standards, Chemicals in Food and Food Trade (held in cooperation with GATT), which recommended continuing and strengthened consumer participation in food-related decision-making at national and international levels; and the 1992 FAO/WHO International Conference on Nutrition, which recommended that consumers be protected through improved food quality and safety, and outlined measures to accomplish that recommendation.
Furthermore, in 1993, FAO held an expert consultation on the Integration of Consumer Interests in Food Control.
Since its inception, the Codex Alimentarius Commission, together with its subsidiary committees, has given top priority to the protection and interests of consumers in the formulation of food standards and related activities.
Both Codex subsidiary bodies and the Commission give the highest priority to consumer interests in the formulation of commodity and general standards. The adopted format for standards reflects the emphasis that Codex places on ensuring consumers receive products that are of a minimum acceptable quality, are safe and do not present a health hazard. Format provisions for commodity standards, including the name of the standard, its scope, description, weights and measures and labelling, are intended to ensure that the consumer is not misled and to induce confidence that the food item purchased is what the label says it is. The provision covering essential composition and quality factors ensures that the consumer will not receive a product below a minimum acceptable standard. The provisions concerning food additives and contaminants and hygiene are aimed at protecting the health of consumers.
The Codex Alimentarius contains more than 200 standards in the prescribed format for individual foods or groups of foods. In addition, it includes the General Standard for the Labelling of Prepackaged Foods, the Codex General Guidelines on Claims and the Codex Guidelines on Nutrition Labelling, all of which are aimed at ensuring honest practices in the sale of food while also providing guidance to consumers in their choice of products.
Other general standards for food hygiene, food additives, contaminants and toxins in food and for irradiated foods are of pre-eminent importance in protecting consumers' health and they are valued widely for this purpose.
Similarly, maximum residue limits for pesticides and veterinary drugs and maximum limits for food additives and contaminants have been established to ensure that consumers are not exposed
to unsafe levels of hazardous materials.
Extract from the Codex Guidelines on Nutrition Labelling
PURPOSE OF THE GUIDELINES
To ensure that nutrition labelling is effective:
"In providing the consumer with information about a food so that a wise choice of food can be made ..."
Instruments such as principles and codes have been developed for the express purpose of protecting the health of consumers against food-borne hazards. For example, general principles have been developed for the use of food additives, food import and export inspection and certification and the addition of essential nutrients to foods.
The Codex Alimentarius contains wide-ranging guidelines for the protection of consumers, including such diverse subjects as the Establishment and Application of Microbiological Criteria for Foods and Levels for Radionuclides in Foods Following Accidental Nuclear Contamination for Use in International Trade.
It also contains codes of practice, most of which are codes of hygienic practice providing guidance on the production of food that is safe and suitable for consumption - in other words, their purpose is to protect the health of consumers. The Recommended International Code of Practice - General Principles of Food Hygiene applies to all foods. It is particularly important in protecting consumers because it lays a firm foundation for food safety and follows the food chain from primary production through to final consumption, highlighting the key hygiene controls required at each stage.
The General Principles of Food Hygiene are supported by detailed codes of hygienic practice that have specific application to:
The Codex Alimentarius also contains the Recommended International Code of Practice for Control of the Use of Veterinary Drugs, which has the express aim of preventing the use of drugs that create a hazard to human health.
There are also a number of so-called codes of technological practice, which are intended to ensure that the processing, transport and storage of foods produced to Codex standards are such that consumers receive end products that are wholesome and of the expected quality. Codes of technological practice exist for:
Since its beginning, the Commission has welcomed the participation of consumers, whose organizations have been represented at its sessions since 1965.
The involvement of consumers in the Commission's work has been the subject of explicit discussions within the Commission. Consumers' participation in decision-making in relation to food standards and the Joint FAO/WHO Food Standards Programme, for instance, was an item on the agenda of the 20th Session of the Codex Alimentarius Commission, where it was agreed that it is necessary to continue working in close cooperation with consumers' organizations.
Because of its international nature, the Commission is aware that it can only go part of the way towards involving consumers in its food standardization and related work. Therefore, the 20th Session of the Commission invited governments to involve consumers more effectively in the decision-making process at the national level:
"The Commission has continued to involve consumer interests in its work while recognizing that it is at the national level that consumers can make their most valuable and effective input."
The Codex Alimentarius Secretariat disseminates Codex documents to international consumers' organizations as well as providing information on request. It also distributes all documents relating both to its own activities and to those of its subsidiary committees to Codex Contact Points in member countries. This is done in the expectation that they will be forwarded to nationally based consumers' organizations for comment as required.
In helping to establish and strengthen food control systems, FAO and WHO have emphasized the importance of consumers' input and, in some developing countries, have assisted with the establishment of a national consumers' organization.
When assisting with the establishment of National Codex Committees, the two organizations have consistently recommended the inclusion of consumers' representatives and advocated the necessity of receiving their input concerning national attitudes towards proposed international food standards as well as food control activities within the country. In doing this, FAO has recognized the limitations of its authority and the prerogatives and sovereignty of national governments in deciding the extent to which consumers might and can be involved.