The Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC) was established by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) to protect the health of consumers and ensure fair practices in food trade. The Commission first met in 1963. Codex is funded by FAO and the WHO and has 180 member governments, including the European Community as a member organisation.
The Codex Alimentarius (Latin for "food code") is the result of the work of the Commission and its around 20 technical committees: a collection of internationally adopted food standards, guidelines and codes of practice.
Codex standards are adopted in most cases by consensus and are based on the best scientific and technical knowledge. Codex is the only international forum bringing together scientists, technical experts, government regulators, as well as international consumer and industry organizations. In many countries, public meetings are held to receive comments on Codex drafts and to prepare national positions. Codex' work is mentioned amongst "60 Ways the United Nations Makes a Difference" (http://www.un.org/un60/60ways/health.html).
Codex standards and guidelines and more information material are available on the Codex website (www.codexalimentarius.net).
Videos on Codex can be found at: http://www.youtube.com/user/CodexAlim.
Codex Alimentarius follows the principle that consumers have a right to expect their food to be safe, of good quality and suitable for consumption. In this regard, the safety and essential quality of internationally traded food is of paramount importance. Codex has set a number of standards and codes on foods for vulnerable groups such as infants and young children, to provide adequate nutrition while protecting them from foodborne risks and to reduce infant mortality and morbidity worldwide.
Codex also aims at protecting consumers against deceptive practices. Codex work in food labelling contributes to providing consumers with accurate and useful information to guide their choice of foods.
Codex assists in the harmonisation of national food legislation and regulation of countries which want to use Codex texts as benchmark. International harmonisation of standards facilitates food trade and sustainable economic development. Codex plays an important role particularly for the developing countries that may lack the necessary infrastructure and expertise to put in place adequate standards, food safety controls and management systems.
The FAO Conference, and the World Health Assembly, jointly decided in establish Codex in 1961 and in 1963 respectively. The need for harmonised food standards to better protect consumers and remove unnecessary trade barriers was however being felt in the international community since long before. The establishment of Codex evolved from earlier attempts to develop Codex Alimentarius Europaeus. In Austria, the national food standards are still called Codex Alimentarius Austriacus.
The Executive Committee advises the Commission on many questions and serves as a "management board", which would make it impractical to have it attended by 600 delegates (as in the Commission). Instead each region of the world is represented in the Executive Committee through members that have been elected into this position by the membership as well as regional coordinators and the bureau of the Commission. The proceedings and audio-recordings of the meetings of the Executive Committee are later made public.
A wide range of international non-governmental organizations, representing consumers, universities and scientists, industry etc, can take part in Codex work and voice their views. Over 160 international non-governmental organizations representing consumers or industry can participate as observers, together with over 60 United Nations organizations and other intergovernmental organizations. They contribute expert views and technical knowledge in their specialised fields. However, final decisions are taken by members' delegations. Delegations are nominated by higher authorities of governments. The Codex Alimentarius Commission is an intergovernmental body operating within the United Nations.
The Codex Alimentarius Commission elects its Chairperson from among national delegates at its meetings in July (at present annually), who will serve until the next meeting. The Codex Secretariat is run by staff designated by FAO and WHO.
All Codex standards, guidelines and codes of practice are published on the Codex Alimentarius website at www.codexalimentarius.net. Their downloading is free-of-charge. Publications in print and on CD ROM are available on a cost recovery basis.
Codex bases its standards on the best available scientific knowledge at the time, and updates them as necessary. This is because science develops continuously and Codex decisions have to be reviewed in light of new events and discoveries. This is what the whole Codex procedure is about - to offer a neutral international forum for discussion and decision. Developing a Codex standard is a long and thorough process. In case of doubts it is likely that Codex will not develop a standard or take a longer time to build consensus especially when there are very different opinions among member governments.
Codex is financed by all member governments of FAO and WHO. Their contribution is either channelled through their assessed contribution to FAO and to WHO, or through in-kind contribution by hosting a Codex meeting. Several donor governments have been contributing to the Codex Trust Fund, which assists travels of delegates from developing countries in need to attend Codex meetings.
Codex works in the background - to prevent health problems for consumers and to ensure faire practices in the food trade. Codex has been quite successful in doing so over the last almost 50 years. Codex is not almighty because it is individual governments that are directly responsible for food safety of their population - but without Codex, you might heave heard much more about bad incidents with food in the news. Prevention is not a very "sexy" topic. Consumer organizations are very interested in the work of Codex and actively participate in the meetings.
Codex texts are voluntary and non-binding. In international trade disputes, Codex standards and guidelines may be cited as reference texts at the World Trade Organisation (WTO). By introducing legislation and regulation that is consistent with Codex standards and guidelines governments may reduce the risk of being brought before a WTO Disputes Panel. A Government can adopt its own level of protection, e.g. go beyond or stop short of Codex. If a government chooses a higher level of protection, and in the event of a trade dispute, it may be required to justify the sanitary measure corresponding to its chosen level of protection on scientific, health, or other legitimate grounds. In many countries, most food legislation is already consistent with Codex.
Codex standards are voluntary and non-binding recommendations and their implementation is not controlled but many governments implement them because they see the benefit of it for their consumers and their trade.