30 June 2003, Rome -- The Codex Alimentarius Commission opened its 26th session today with representatives from 169 countries coming together to decide on the adoption of a number of controversial new food safety standards designed to safeguard the health of consumers worldwide, while improving global agricultural trade opportunities.

Codex is a joint Commission of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) that sets food safety and agricultural trade standards. Standards up for adoption by the Commission include the establishment of methods to assess the risk of foods derived from biotechnology and a standard that would allow increased levels of radiation to be used in food irradiation, a process that delays food spoilage and increases shelf life.

Noting the expansion in world trade, FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf, in remarks delivered by FAO Deputy Director-General David Harcharik at the opening session of the Commission, said that the increase of food trade, especially of processed foods, was not limited to developed countries, "but can be observed in many developing countries as well." Today, because of trade, there is a wider variety of foods available on the market than at any time in history.

"The increase in the volume and in the variety of foods inevitably creates a demand for food standards that ensure fair trade practices across all countries and regions of the world," Dr. Diouf said, adding that "increased foreign investment in food manufacturing industries and food distribution and retail industries also creates situations where harmonized food standards are desired among the regions in the world."

Dr. Diouf said, "Today, the expectations of governments for the Codex Alimentarius Commission to achieve its two major mandates, protection of consumer health and assurance of fair practices in food trade is higher than ever before and we anticipate that this will only become stronger in the future."

Noting that "food safety is not a luxury of the rich, but a right of all people," Dr. Diouf stressed the critical importance of capacity building and investment in developing countries' food control systems, both for the protection of their consumers and to facilitate international trade.

WHO Director-General Gro Harlem Brundtland, in remarks video-taped for the Codex meeting, said: "We have to recognize that food can never be defined as completely safe." However, "the risks can be reduced through routine food safety work that must be carried out every day. This means countless men and women working diligently to protect human health throughout the food chain."

Dr. Brundtland said the World Health Assembly, WHO's governing body, urged its member states to "make full use of Codex standards for the protection of human health throughout the food chain, including assistance with making healthy nutrition and diet choices. She said WHO was also asked "to help developing countries strengthen their capacity in all areas of food safety," adding that countries need to be prepared to develop positions based on sound scientific evidence.

Earlier this year WHO and FAO launched a Trust Fund to help developing countries that need financial assistance to increase their participation in Codex.

During its 26th Session, the Commission is expected to adopt standards that improve food safety, including one for levels of radiation that may be used in food irradiation. In response to concerns about meat consumption and consumer safety in the wake of problems such as Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (mad cow disease), some of the standards before the Commission would establish principles of meat hygiene, a code of practice on good animal feeding, including feed additives and maximum residue limits in food products for veterinary drugs. There is also a code of practice on the prevention of patulin contamination in apple juice, a code of practice for the prevention of mycotoxin contamination in cereals and one for fresh fruits and vegetables.

Also expected to be adopted are guidelines for assessing the food safety risks associated with foods derived from biotechnology. These include broad general principles covering issues such as pre-market safety evaluations and the role of product tracing for food safety and post-market monitoring. Separate detailed guidelines have been prepared for the scientific assessments of DNA-modified plants and foods and beverages derived from DNA-modified micro-organisms. Special attention has been paid to the question of assessing whether such products could provoke unexpected allergies in consumers.

In addition to food safety issues, Codex will consider the adoption of new standards that will clearly define many food items, including chocolate and chocolate products and when the use of term "chocolate" is allowed. If adopted, the new standard will require a declaration of minimum cocoa content for all chocolate flavoured products.

Other standards will define quality standards for anchovies, limes, pommelos and grapefruits. Olive oils and olive pomace as well as other named vegetable oils also have quality standards up for adoption by Codex. There is also a draft standard before Codex defining canned bamboo shoots, liquid coconut products, such as coconut milk and coconut cream, fruit juices and nectars, cream and prepared cream and fermented milk products, such as yoghurt and cheese.

The Commission will also discuss proposals to overhaul its own structures and procedures so that food standards can be developed more rapidly at the international level with an increased focus on the health of consumers and with greater active participation by developing countries. The practical initiation of a mechanism for the Trust Fund to enable increased participation of developing countries in the standard setting process is also on the agenda.

The Commission meeting runs through 7 July.

John Riddle
FAO News Service
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Mobile: (+39) 348 257 2921
Mr. Gregory Hartl
WHO Media Advisor
Geneva: (+41) 22 791 4458
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