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Codex Alimentarius: How it came about

"Simply stated, if Codex didn't exist, it would have to be developed... "
- Vice president for health, safety and quality control for a food exporting firm

Microbiological analysis for food quality control in India

The Codex scoreboard

• Codex membership: 146 countries
• Commodity food standards established: 237
• Hygienic and technological practice codes: 41
• Pesticides evaluated: 185
• Maximum residue limits (MRLs) established for pesticides: 3274
• Food additives evaluated: 760
• Food contaminants evaluated: 25
• Veterinary drugs evaluated: 54

The term Codex Alimentarius is taken from Latin and means food code. And that's just what Codex Alimentarius is: a code of food standards for all nations. Codex has been developed by an international commission established in 1962 when the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) recognized the need for international standards to guide the world's growing food industry and to protect the health of consumers. As spelled out in Volume I, the purpose of Codex Alimentarius is:

"... to guide and promote the elaboration and establishment of definitions and requirements for foods, to assist in their harmonization and, in doing so, to facilitate international trade".

Since it was established in 1962, the Codex Alimentarius Commission has produced sets of standards, guidelines and principles bound into 28 volumes which include 237 food commodity standards and 41 hygienic and technological practice codes. Codex has resulted in evaluations of the safety of over 700 food additives and contaminants and the setting of more than 3200 maximum residue limits for pesticides. As of 1994, Commission membership included 146 countries.

The standards contain "requirements for food aimed at ensuring the consumer a sound, wholesome food product free from adulteration, correctly labelled and presented".

Today there is little doubt that Codex Alimentarius has had a great impact on the quality and safety of the world's food supply. Codex has helped to upgrade standards for food manufacturing, processing, safety and quality all over the world and has contributed to an increase in international food trade of more than 800 percent since 1962.

Codex Alimentarius has had many parents, as food codes are about as old as the written word. The decision to establish an international programme might be traced back to 1943 when 44 nations met for a United Nations Conference on Food and Agriculture. They recommended formation of an international organization "to assist governments to extend and improve standards of nutrient content of all important foods" and to consider "the formulation and adoption of similar international standards to facilitate and protect the interchange of such products between countries". The organization, which became today's FAO, was also to help the nations of the world agree on international methods of determination. The decision to establish an international programme was accelerated by moves in Europe to develop a European Food Code - the Codex Alimentarius Europeus.

While food codes may once have been written on stone tablets, the nature of food problems has changed for much of the world. In the past, concerns were mainly for food that had rotted or that had been adulterated by the inclusion of inferior or cheaper and sometimes dangerous substances. But in more recent years chemistry has altered that situation. Substances are now added to food for a variety of purposes - to preserve it longer, for instance, or to improve its nutrient value. And chemicals are applied to farm lands to make the crops grow faster, bigger and in less space. Chemicals are also put on crops to protect them from pests, and food animals are often treated with chemical drugs against disease.

One food problem that has not changed is bacterial contamination, often caused by improper handling of foods. Such contamination remains by far the leading cause of food-borne illnesses throughout the world. Indeed, as we shall see, the problem seems to be growing as new, or long dormant, pathogens emerge.

While chemicals have helped make food more abundant, as well as cheaper and easier to ship, they have not been without their drawbacks, one of which is the potential for adverse health consequences. Thus in 1953, WHO's governing body, the World Health Assembly, said the widening use of chemicals in the food industry presented a new public health problem that needed attention. FAO and WHO responded by setting up a joint committee of experts to study food additives. A few years later the two organizations agreed to establish world food standards. The work of the additives committee was blended in, resulting in what we know today as Codex Alimentarius.

Codex Alimentarius was created at just the right time. For one thing, the world population was growing from less than 3000 million in 1960 to more than 4000 million in 1980, meaning the world needed more food. Food production was also increasing rapidly, climbing by two-thirds during those 20 years.

Further, technologies other than those based on chemicals were coming to the farms. Until 1950, increases in crop production resulted mainly from bringing more land under cultivation. But since then, gains have been obtained largely by increasing yields.

This was done through more irrigation, more and better mechanization and new, high-yielding varieties of crops. Chemical fertilizers and pesticides played their part, and techniques to reduce food loss and wastage were introduced.

Just how important technology has been to world agriculture might best be shown with the example of improved wheat varieties for subtropical climates. India first began using them in 1966, at a time when the country was the world's second largest importer of grains. By 1972 India had doubled its grain production, and by the late 1970s it was self-sufficient in basic cereals.

Food preservation and processing technologies were also improved. One example of a technology developed during the period is extrusion cooking of cereals and related products, in which cereals are cooked faster in a process that one manufacturer advertised as "shot from guns". Also relatively new are textured vegetable proteins. Some made from high-protein soybeans are used throughout the world as meat extenders.

But while technology improves, the world's population continues to grow. The total is expected to reach nearly 6000 million by the year 2000, which would be a doubling since 1960. And yet resources on a planet that is two-thirds covered by water are finite. In fact, only 11 percent of the land is suitable for farming.

To increase their food production in coming years, the developing nations will bring more land into production and will get some additional harvests per year, but about 60 percent of their growth will come from increased yields.

How world soil conditions limit agriculture (percentages are of total land area)

Help from outside

Many international organizations help Codex develop its standards. Here is a list of some important ones:

• International Organization of Consumers' Unions (IOCU)
• International Organization for Standardization (ISO)
• Association of Official Analytical Chemists (AOAC)
• United Nations Economic Commission for Europe
• General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT)
• International Dairy Federation (IDF)
• International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI)

It is important to note that Codex Alimentarius was developed at a time when many new nations were evolving in virtually all corners of the globe, nations with the responsibility for providing their citizens with safe, adequate and wholesome food supplies. Most of these nations needed to set up food control establishments - what today might be called infrastructures - that would provide systems to ensure quality and safety in growing, harvesting and distributing foods.

Codex Alimentarius has provided these nations with guides for good agricultural practices, including how to use pesticides; with commodity food standards for processing products; and with hygiene codes for making food safe for citizens and acceptable in international trade.

Codex also came along at a time when consumers were becoming more aware of what they were eating or what they were told they were eating. People became more concerned about getting proper nutrients and avoiding certain additives and contaminants.

To industrialized countries, Codex Alimentarius has become the ultimate reference. "What does Codex say?" is the question asked often by food technologists, manufacturers, government officials and consumer advocates as they ponder food-related matters. To developing countries, Codex is recognized as a ready-made set of requirements. Whether adopted into law entirely or simply by reference, Codex standards provide consumer protection, and both domestic food producers and importers know that the risk is theirs if they fail to live up to Codex.

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