7 July 2003, Rome -- As the UN's Codex Alimentarius Commission announces agreement on international guidelines for food trade and production, farmers and commodity traders in the lush, southern Indian state of Kerala know that good standards mean better business.

For centuries, the engine driving economic development in Kerala and its main port city, Cochin, has been the spice trade -- especially trade in black pepper. Some aspects of the Cochin pepper trade have remained unchanged for centuries. But a new focus on internationally recognized food safety norms means that Kerala black pepper is reaching more consumers around the globe than ever before.

Backyard production, international markets

Pepper plants do not require intensive care. Once planted at the base of shade-giving trees, they need little attention until after the monsoons, when it's time to harvest.

This fact, combined with laws limiting agricultural production on large farms to four principal crops, means that pepper is commonly grown in Kerala as a secondary crop by farmers -- and by most other area residents as well. It offers a worry-free way for households to supplement their incomes.

"If you have a bit of land, you'll probably have at least four or five pepper plants," observes Ramachandran Nallathambi, a shopkeeper from Kerala.

Mr Nallathambi and his neighbours have no trouble selling whatever pepper they can grow -- however large or small the amount -- for a good price to the traders of Cochin. The traders, in turn, sell on the international market, where demand for spices continues to grow.

Despite increasing competition from other spice-producing countries, it is estimated that 45 percent of all spices sold around the world come from India. Much of the black pepper exported to Asia, Europe and the United States is grown by small producers in Kerala like Ramachandran Nallathambi.

Questions of safety

Growth in international trade of agricultural products like pepper has been accompanied by higher international standards of food safety. And so processing -- when micro-organisms are eliminated from the spice -- is a critical component of India's dynamic pepper export industry.

Traditional processing methods, such as steam sterilization and fumigation, are still used around the world and are accepted by spice-importing countries. Yet some of the chemicals used in fumigation are considered damaging to human health and the environment.

Alongside these older methods, the use of new technologies, such as irradiation, is becoming increasingly common. There is a real need for effective ways to safely sanitize agricultural produce. Worldwide, about 25 percent of all food production is lost to insects, bacteria and rodents after harvesting, according to FAO estimates. Irradiation can help cut these losses while reducing dependence on chemical pesticides.

When integrated within an established system for the safe handling and distribution of food, the technology has been successfully used to combat threats from foodborne diseases, control pest infestation of grains and extend the shelf lives of products. Today, health and safety authorities in over 40 countries have approved irradiation of over 60 different foods, including grains, chicken, beef, fruits, vegetables -- and spices.

Following the Codex Alimentarius Commission's adoption in 1983 of a worldwide standard covering irradiated foods, the use of irradiation in tackling food safety problems began to receive more attention internationally. The standard was based on a 1980 study by a group of experts convened by Codex, who concluded that irradiation of any food commodity up to an overall average dose of 10 kilogray (kGy) "presents no toxicological hazard."

During its 26th session, which closed today, the Commission adopted a revised version of the Codex General Standard for Irradiated Foods. The revised standard maintains a maximum absorbed dose of 10 kGy, but allows limited exceptions to this limit when necessary to achieve a legitimate technological purpose, and provided that it does not compromise consumer safety or wholesomeness of food. This decision was taken in part on the basis of a WHO evaluation and several joint FAO-WHO-International Atomic Energy Agency expert group conclusions that irradiated foods are safe and nutritionally adequate.

For spice-producing countries like India, irradiation offers an attractive alternative to traditional sanitation methods. Heat treatment can cause significant loss of flavour and aroma; fumigation with sterilizing gases is also problematic, as these chemicals are banned in a number of countries.

Irradiation of spices on a commercial scale is practised in over 20 countries; in 2000, worldwide some 80 000 metric tonnes of spice were processed using irradiation.

In India, irradiation facilities are only available in Mumbai, but there are plans for more.

"We would as a matter of policy like to encourage the installation of facilities that will provide the kind of cleanliness that the importing countries require," says C.J. Jose, Chairman of the Spices Board of India, the branch of India's Ministry of Commerce responsible for overseeing the national spice industry.

According to Dr N. Ramamoorthy, Chief Executive of India's Board of Radiation and Isotope Technology, "out of the various methods, such as chemical fumigation and other things, irradiation provides a very cost-effective and a very clean method, with no residues -- nothing is left."

"Irradiation is a process which is economical, which will take care of all major contaminants and microbial load," says Mr Jose. But, he adds, "the major problem confronting irradiation is the psychological resistance in many countries, either because of consumer resistance or because of legislative reasons, which are not really founded on strong health and safety concerns."

Food safety debates like that surrounding the use of irradiation lie at the heart of the work of the Codex Alimentarius Commission. Codex brings nations from around the world together to evaluate agriculture and processing methods and hammer out commonly accepted guidelines for international food safety based on the best available science.

High standards mean good business

By bringing its pepper processing standards in line with the international norms outlined in Codex, India is not only addressing core issues of health and safety -- it is also opening doors to its products around the world.

"This is important to build up the image of the country," explains Dr Sashi Sareen, Director of India's Export Inspection Council (EIC), "to see that the products which are exported are of the right quality [and] don't get rejected at the importing end."

The council conducts stringent inspections of commodity exports, including black pepper. An EIC certification gives importing countries a guarantee that products are of the highest quality and meet internationally accepted standards for hygiene. This gives even small producers like Ramachandran Nallathambi the opportunity to benefit from global trade.

"The U.S. has recognized the Export Inspection Council certification for black pepper," notes Dr Sareen. "Every black pepper consignment which is approved or certified here, that gets a direct entry into the U.S."

Through its participation in Codex, India has engaged with the international community to establish common benchmarks for food safety that reflect both the particular conditions affecting its national agricultural sector and global food safety standards.

"India has been quite remarkable in the Codex in the last few years," observes Alan Randell, Secretary of the Commission. "I think it has understood the importance of international food standards, and that an investment in meeting food standards reaps benefits in trade, in that it allows the country to trade more freely with the important trading partners around the world."



Contact:

George Kourous
Information Officer, FAO
(+39) 06 57053168
george.kourous@fao.org