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Commodity food standards

"A rose is a rose is a rose. "
- From "Sacred Emily" by Gertrude Stein

A production line for catsup, a condiment, in the United States

And a can of tomatoes is a can of tomatoes is a can of tomatoes. Or is it? That depends. Yes, there are tomatoes in the can, but what liquid were they packed in? The type and amount of liquid makes quite a difference in the taste and quantity of tomatoes. Also, are any spices, seasonings, food additives or fillers added?

Food standards are needed so we know that when we buy a can of tomatoes we are getting a generous portion of tomatoes and not a lot of cheap, inferior and maybe dangerous filler in the can. Consequently, a can of tomatoes in Italy can be the same as a can of tomatoes in Canada, which in turn can be the same as a can of tomatoes in Argentina.

The more than 200 food standards developed by Codex are contained - along with labelling and additive standards and other recommendations - in 19 volumes. That may sound daunting, but the standards have been neatly condensed in a portable loose-leaf binder that references the more detailed materials needed.

On the next page is a reproduction from the abridged version of Codex's first food commodity standard, which covers canned tomatoes. Note that the standard specifies what the weight of the tomatoes minus liquid should be. Likewise, note that the amount of vegetable products added to the tomatoes is limited to 10 percent.

Also listed are the additives that may be used in these tomatoes. In this case they include acidifying and firming agents. Maximum levels for the additives are spelled out in the complete Codex and are referenced in the additives part of the abridged version. For example, under firming agents permitted in tomatoes, the first listing is identified by its INS (International Numbering System) number of 509. Reference to page 86 of the additives section in the binder reveals that the agent is calcium chloride, which may be used in quantities of 450 or 800 milligrams per kilogram depending on whether the tomatoes are cut up or whole.




(a) shall be the product prepared from washed, ripened tomatoes, conforming to the characteristics of the fruit of Lycopersicum esculentem P. Mill. The product shall be heat processed and have had the stems and slices removed and shall have been cored, except where the internal core is insignificant as to texture and appearance.

(b) the product may:

• be packed in packing media including the following: juice, residual material puree or pulp, paste

• contain spices, spice oils, seasoning, starch, vegetable products (such as onion, peppers, celery, and basil leaf providing that such ingredients do not exceed 10% m/m of the product), salt and when acidifying agents are used, sucrose, dextrose, and dried glucose syrup

(c) may contain the following food additives indicated in the relevant pages of Division. 3 as listed below:




Acidifying Agents




4, 109







Firming Agents













(d) the minimum drained weight of the product shall be not less than 50% of the weight of distilled water at 20°C, which the sealed containers will hold when completely filled in addition to the mandatory labelling provisions found in the General Standard for the Labelling of Prepackaged Foods, the following specific provisions apply:

• if the peel has not been removed, the word "unpeeled"
• the packing material, as appropriate in close proximity to the common name "Tomatoes"; "tomato puree", "tomato pulp", or "tomato paste".
• the style: "diced", "sliced", or "wedges" as appropriate
• the type: "flavoured", "seasoned" or "stewed" as appropriate
• the style, "whole" when the product consists of not less than 80% m/m of drained tomatoes in whole or almost whole units.

The standard makes no mention of tolerating blemishes in the product. Nor are any extraneous items permitted, so we wouldn't expect to find pieces of vine in the can. With some products, blemishes, pieces of pits and the like may be permitted, but always to a limited degree. For example, the Codex standard for raisins allows two pieces of stems per kilogram, while the canned mandarin orange standard permits one seed per 100 grams.

The categories covered in the 237 Codex commodity food standards are listed below, in the order in which they appear in Codex documents:

• Processed fruits and vegetables and edible fungi
• Sugars
• Processed meats, poultry products and bouillons and consommés
• Fish and fishery products
• Cocoa products and chocolate
• Quick frozen fruits and vegetables
• Fruit juices, concentrated fruit juices and fruit nectars
• Edible fats and oils
• Milk products
• Cereals, pulses, legumes and derived products
• Edible ices and ice mixes
• Vegetable proteins

Regional standards for gari, pearl millet grains and pearl millet flour for Africa, and natural mineral water, vinegar, mayonnaise and the fresh fungus "chanterelle" for Europe are being converted to fully international standards.

There is also a general standard for irradiated foods, telling what levels of irradiation may be used on what foods. The foods covered are chicken, cocoa beans, dates, mangoes, onions, papaya, potatoes, pulses, rice, spices, strawberries, dried fish and fish products and wheat. Irradiation is used on these products to control insect infestation, reduce microbial contamination and/or prolong storage life.

In addition, standards have been developed for foods for special diets. These include low-sodium foods, gluten-free foods infant formulas, baby foods and cereal-based foods for infants and children.

As international trade grows and consumer interest peaks, the emphasis is shifting to more flexible commodity standards, which treat additives, contaminants and other items on an across-the-board or horizontal basis. This change should help to breach those non-tariff barriers that some nations have erected in the guise of health protection measures.

Not that food standards will be abandoned. Far from it. They're still needed and still used because a can of tomatoes must always be a can of tomatoes.

Young woman at work in a seafood packing plant in Shanghai, China

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