9 July 2003, Rome -- The Codex Alimentarius Commission has adopted a landmark agreement on how to assess the risks to consumers from foods derived from biotechnology, including genetically modified foods, FAO and the World Health Organization (WHO) said today.

Altogether, the Commission adopted more than 50 new food safety and quality standards, some of which are revisions of old standards.

The Commission adopted ground-breaking guidelines for assessing the food safety risks posed by foods derived from biotechnology.

Food safety and genetically modified food

These guidelines lay out broad general principles intended to make the analysis and management of risks related to foods derived from biotechnology uniform across Codex's 169 member countries. The guidelines concern food safety and not environmental risks.

Provisions of the guidelines include pre-market safety evaluations and product tracing for recall purposes and post-market monitoring. The guidelines cover the scientific assessment of DNA-modified plants, such as maize, soya or potatoes, and foods and beverages derived from DNA-modified micro-organisms, including cheese, yoghurt and beer.

They include provisions for assessing the product's allergenicity, determining if the product may provoke unexpected allergies in consumers.

"These guidelines are a very important step towards understanding the risks associated with foods derived from biotechnology," said Alan Randell, Secretary of the Codex Commission.

"Now, any country, regulatory body or other organization or individual will be able to compare the risk assessments of a given food derived from biotechnology with the assessments done by other countries. As long as the science is sound, each country wishing to use or introduce a given food derived from biotechnology will not have to redo the analysis, but can move directly to deciding how to manage the marketing of that food. Consumers can be assured that foods assessed by these methods are fit to eat," he said.

Irradiated food

The Commission also adopted a new standard for irradiated foods that accepts higher levels of radiation on food products. Food is irradiated to make it safe for longer periods of time. The process, which uses gamma ray irradiation, kills bacteria, increasing the food products' shelf life.

The Commission determined that allowing higher levels of irradiation would eliminate bacterial spores and the radiation resistant pathogenic bacteria Clostridium botulinum. The process also reduces the need to use more toxic chemical methods of combating bacteria, some of which can be harmful to the environment.

"This is a really important breakthrough," Randell said. "For the consumer it means a potential for higher levels of food safety because of the protection offered by food irradiation. For example, it can be applied to spices which can carry bacteria resistant to other treatments. Irradiated foods are proven safe and do not contain any radioactive traces."

Responding to consumer concerns about meat, the Commission adopted standards that will improve the safety of meat by establishing principles of meat hygiene. A Code of Practice on good animal feeding calls for stricter and more systematic controls over sources of contamination.

Cocoa in chocolate

Codex adopted new quality standards for many food items. For example, consumers will soon note the amount of cocoa in chocolate and chocolate products will determine when the term "chocolate" can be used. The new standard sets a minimum 35 per cent of cocoa solids in products marketed as "chocolate" and a minimum 20 per cent in "chocolate type" products, such as "chocolate flakes". The new standard requires the minimum cocoa content to be clearly marked on the packaging of all chocolate flavoured products.

"The Commission made some very important decisions for food safety. The most important of these was to extend food safety systems to small and medium-sized enterprises, especially in developing countries. This will help these small businesses produce safe food for consumers and improve their prospects for trade," said Alan Randell.

The Commission examined its own structures and procedures to speed up its work and make it more open to developing countries and international non-governmental organizations. Additionally WHO and FAO requested Codex to better prioritize its requests for scientific advice, which is provided by FAO/WHO expert bodies. FAO and WHO will strengthen their efforts in providing the science as the basis for Codex standards in a timely manner.

FAO and WHO further called on developed countries to contribute to the Codex Trust Fund to help increase participation by developing countries in the standard-setting process.

The commission elected Stuart Slorach of Sweden as its new Chairperson.

The Codex Alimentarius Commission is the highest international body on food standards. The Commission is a subsidiary body of FAO and WHO. Codex Alimentarius means "food code" and is the compilation of all the Standards, Codes of Practice, Guidelines and Recommendations of the Codex Alimentarius Commission.

Codex has 169 member countries. The 26th session was attended by delegates from 127 of the member countries, the most ever to attend a Codex session.

Contacts:
Erwin Northoff
Information Officer, FAO
(+39) 06 570 53105
erwin.northoff@fao.org

Gregory Hartl
WHO Media Advisor
(+41) 22 791 4458
hartlg@who.int