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FAO/WHO conference on food standards, chemicals in food and food trade

Conférence FAO/OMS sur les normes alimentaires, les substances chimiques dans les aliments et le commerce des denrées alimentaires
Conferencia FAO/OMS sobre normas alimentarias, sustancias químicas en los alimentos y comercio alimentario

H. McNally

Mr McNally is a retired senior officer of the Codex Group and worked for FAO in the area of food standards for 23 years.

In March 1991, 383 participants from 79 countries and 28 international organizations met to consider food standards, chemicals in food and food trade.1 The participants suggested ways to make the work of the Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC) on international food standards more responsive to the current needs of governments, reviewed the achievements and efficacy of the joint FAO/WHO expert committees on food additives and pesticide residues, identified the major problems in import/export food control which obstruct international trade in food and suggested solutions to those problems.2

1 The conference was organized by FAO and WHO in cooperation with the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and was held at FAO headquarters. The Chairman was Mr Eddie F. Kimbrell (USA), a former Chairman of the Codex Alimentarius Commission. The Vice-Chairpersons were Lie. Maria Eugenia Chacón (Costa Rica), Dr Azizan Ghazali (Malaysia), Prof. M. Hilal (Egypt) and Dr H. Woidich (Austria). Mr L. Erwin (Australia), Dr C. Cremer (Belgium) and Dr E. Méndez (Mexico) were the rapporteurs. Mr Edouard Saouma, the Director-General of FAO, opened the conference.

2 Ed. note: For further information on the Codex Alimentarius Commission and its response to the conference recommendations, refer to the Codex Alimentarius column in this issue.

In his opening address, the Mr Edouard Saouma, Director-General of FAO, stressed that the need to protect the health of consumers was fully recognized, yet this objective should not lead to measures that could be disadvantageous to food trade. This was particularly true in the case of developing countries with newly emerging food export industries.

Mr Saouma called for proposals of ways to harmonize food safety and certification requirements of importing countries so that developing countries would have the capacity to meet the standards. He expressed the hope that the Uruguay Round of Multilateral Trade Negotiations on agricultural products would be brought to a successful conclusion. This would give new importance to the international Codex standards and to the FAO/WHO scientific evaluations in international food trade.

Consumer participation recommended

To gain consumer confidence in Codex standards and procedures and to obtain representative views of consumers, the conference recommended ways to encourage consumer participation. In countries without a consumer movement, governments and international organizations should stimulate consumer awareness of food quality and safety matters, including the work of the Codex Alimentarius Commission, by giving information through the media and existing forums and encouraging consumer participation in decision-making. Governments could draw on advice and technical assistance available from international organizations. In countries with consumer movements, governments should be encouraged to set up a regular consultative procedure (for example, a national Codex advisory group) in which consumers' views will be given equal consideration with the views of producers, industry and trade. To increase consumer participation at the international level, consumer representatives in national delegations can be helpful. However, the prime focus should be on regular consultation with consumers when national positions are decided before Codex and related meetings. Governments should encourage support and funding for consumer experts and representatives to participate in Codex and other food quality and safety work.

To disseminate information and provide support for consumer participation, FAO/WHO should consider producing summaries of Codex issues. National Codex Contact Points should be advised about disseminating information to relevant organizations.

Harmonized standards

The process of harmonizing national food regulations to bring them into line with international standards and recommendations is urgent and needs to be accelerated. The conference reaffirmed that countries could improve their export possibilities by using Codex standards.

Horizontal approach to health protection provisions in Codex standards

The conference recommended that Codex committees focus on the elaboration of horizontal provisions in Codex standards as related to consumer protection and facilitation of international trade. In the case of food additives, for example, a horizontal approach means listing the categories of foods in which an approved food additive or additives may be used (or not used) as well as maximum level of use, whereas a vertical approach means the consideration of the use of one or more additives on an individual food commodity basis. The conference strongly endorsed the horizontal approach as the main strategy for the control of additives in food and asked the Codex Alimentarius Commission to explore the same approach in other areas, e.g. in relation to chemical and microbiological contaminants and methods of analysis and sampling.

Reduction of detail in some Codex standards

The conference concluded that Codex standards should focus on provisions that are essential for consumer protection (health, safety of foods, fraud), while provisions relating to styles, types of pack, sizes, defects, etc. should be limited to very special circumstances to avoid excessive detail. It was agreed that procedures for the review and possible restructuring of existing Codex standards were needed. The needs to eliminate details where appropriate, to simplify standards and to facilitate government acceptance of Codex standards were recognized.

GATT and the CAC: health-related components of Codex standards

The need to review the health protection provisions of Codex standards also stems from the Uruguay Round of Multilateral Trade Negotiations under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). The GATT negotiations in the area of sanitary and phytosanitary regulations and measures are important because the draff GATT agreement would accord a new international status to Codex standards, guidelines and other recommendations. The GATT contracting parties could be required to justify deviations from the health-related components of Codex standards, regardless of a country's position with respect to acceptance of the Codex standards. In view of this possible new international role, the conference recommended an early review programme to examine all Codex standards for their current relevance and sound scientific basis. It was agreed that the timeliness of Codex procedures for the establishment and review of standards should be re-examined. All Codex committees, the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) and the Joint FAO/WHO Meeting on Pesticide Residues (JMPR) should continue to base their evaluations on scientific principles and to ensure consistency in their risk assessment determinations.

Modification of methods of accepting Codex standards

The conference strongly supported the Secretariat's proposal for a new method of acceptance of Codex standards, i.e. a positive notification of "free distribution" of products conforming to Codex standards, to go alongside the existing methods of full acceptance, target acceptance and acceptance with specified deviations. It was recommended that the CAC review its procedures for the elaboration of standards, consider the rationalization of its work on commodity-specific standards and strengthen the work of its general subject committees, so that matters of general importance such as labelling, additives, contaminants and methods of analysis and sampling would be handled entirely by the general subject committee concerned. This modification is needed if the Commission's work is to encompass all foods moving in international trade and to provide general guidance.

Improving information on appropriate pesticide use to increase acceptances of Codex maximum residue limits

The conference recommended that JMPR receive complete and timely toxicology and residue data, including specific good agricultural practice (GAP) information reflecting nationally approved uses. JMPR and the Codex Committee on Pesticide Residues (CCPR) should inform countries about the basis for evaluation to increase the transparency of the process and to resolve differences in approach that might arise between CCPR and JMPR and national authorities. This improved communication should ultimately lead to more acceptances of Codex maximum residue limits (MRLs), GAP information provided to JMPR should be under constant review and should reflect effects on the environment. FAO should consider the manner in which assistance could be given to developing countries for the purpose of generating GAP data.

Risk assessment

The conference agreed that governments, international organizations, industry and consumer organizations have major roles in collecting and communicating information used in the risk assessment process. Such communication to the media and the public is necessary to allay fears about the safety of foods.

The importance of JECFA and JMPR in providing evaluations based on sound science and risk assessment principles was recognized, and the conference recommended that WHO and FAO take steps to increase awareness of these principles. The conference also recommended that the CAC and the relevant Codex committees responsible for the development of standards, codes of practice or guidelines concerned with the protection of human health should make explicit the methods they have used to assess risk.


The conference recognized that the demands on the expert committees JECFA and JMPR had grown in both volume and scope and that more resources would be needed to speed up the work process. It recommended that FAO and WHO consider making available more information on the backgrounds of experts involved in food safety evaluations; consider means of establishing closer cooperation with national, regional and international scientific organizations involved in food safety evaluations; broaden the range of experts it draws upon, including the use of technical consultants to assist the committees in their work; and consider having JECFA undertake periodic review of all substances previously cleared.

The conference made recommendations to governments, industry, FAO, WHO and the Codex Committee on Food Additives and Contaminents (CCFAC) regarding the provision of data for review by JECFA and JMPR and the allocation of work priorities. The recommendations stressed the importance of dietary intake estimates. A high priority was placed on the evaluation of substances migrating from packaging materials and on the evaluation of naturally occurring toxicants, FAO and WHO should determine the criteria for the periodic priority review of substances previously allocated an acceptable daily intake (ADI) or similar endpoint, and WHO should seek to develop internationally accepted principles for risk assessment of substances that have been shown to be carcinogenic in animal studies.

The need for JECFA to continue strengthening its work in the preparation of specifications and determining of analytical procedures so they could be utilized by all countries, particularly developing countries, was stressed, JECFA should only consider scientific issues regarding health, safety and technical concerns and should not be involved with socio-economic or ethical issues.

New foods and foods derived from biotechnology

The conference agreed that evaluations of new products, especially those produced by biotechnology, should be done by JECFA. It recommended that the activities of JECFA be enlarged, that the CCFAC establish priorities on work on new products to be assigned to JECFA and that the CAC review these new products from the point of view of nutrition and labelling.

Food quality and control in developing countries

The conference recommended that FAO and WHO strengthen assistance to developing countries at all levels of food production from raw materials to final products, as well as assist them with adopting adequate food laws and establishing food control infrastructures to implement them. Food control in import and export was a major topic for consideration at the conference. Regulatory requirements should be transparent and scientifically based, and wherever possible, uniform standards based on Codex standards should be applied to imported foods. Early advice of rejections would allow quick remedial action in the production phase, inspection system or analytical procedures. A government-level dialogue would help developing countries to understand the food control systems of importing countries. The conference recognized the important and urgent need of developing countries for assistance in developing and strengthening food control/export inspection systems to enable them to meet the requirements of importing countries. The conference particularly emphasized the need to train inspection, laboratory and managerial staff working in food control and agreed that training should be given a very high priority. Under the proposed GATT Agreement on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures, contracting parties would agree to facilitate the provision of technical assistance and information to developing countries that were parties to the agreement.

To help developing countries improve their food control capabilities and to enhance their food export possibilities, the conference recommended that food exporting countries improve and strengthen their food production, processing and distribution systems to protect the integrity and safety of foods and avoid losses. It was highly stressed that the quality and safety of food had to be integral to the product, which implies good agricultural and manufacturing practices throughout the food chain. Heavy reliance on final inspection might not be in the best interest of the consumer and the economy of the country.

The conference fully recognized the needs of developing countries for technical assistance to strengthen their food control systems and recommended that FAO, WHO and food-importing developed countries strengthen their efforts to provide training and other support in this area. It is only through upgrading of developing countries' food control systems that conformity of their food exports with international requirements and those imposed by the importing countries can be ensured.

Recognizing the important work of FAO's Food Quality and Consumer Protection Group, the conference recommended that efforts be made to increase its resources to support developing countries further, especially by promoting the use of Codex standards. codes of practice and guidelines to improve their food control systems.

The conference recommended that Member Governments examine their communication systems with respect to rejections of foods and food products and improve dialogue with governments of food-exporting countries to help them to remedy their food inspection problems and improve the chances of acceptance of their food. It also recommended that FAO consider establishing a system of obtaining and collating information on rejections and related matters national food control authorities might use to upgrade their performance and facilitate development of longer term strategies at national and international levels. The conference recommended that FAO and WHO consider developing a list of training opportunities and other forms of support that might assist developing countries to improve their food control capabilities.

New consideration of import/export requirements under national food control systems

To help developing countries obtain information on import requirements and exchange information, the conference recommended that FAO's Food Quality and Consumer Protection Group strengthen its assistance to developing countries in the area of information requirements to improve acceptance of their food products by importing countries; that FAO and WHO review their information exchange systems to determine what aspects might be useful to developing countries and take into account the future needs of developing countries in planning import/export projects to assist them; that comments regarding information needs and exchange by countries be sought; and that Codex Contact Points be the national central exchange points in an information exchange system as well as in coordinating training activities. Formation of a committee to deal with import/export food control problems, including certification problems, was recommended. The conference suggested that guidelines rather than standards would be appropriate in this area. Countries have been invited to indicate the type of information they have available regarding detentions and rejections of food imports.

Microbiological contamination

Microbiological contamination in the production of foods is an. important problem in public health protection and has repercussions for the movement of food in world trade. The Conference recommended that WHO, FAO and the CAC give priority to the subject of microbiological contamination of foods and increase their efforts in this area.

Developing country participation in Codex meetings

The conference recommended that FAO and WHO and their Member Governments continue seeking ways to improve participation by developing countries in Codex meetings. The conference recommended that the CAC review mechanisms to facilitate developing country participation, which might include: obtaining extra-budgetary resources; arranging for more Codex meetings to be linked to workshops where the travel and daily subsistence allowances of participants are paid for by the sponsoring agencies; and examining the feasibility of amending the Codex Rules of Procedure, which specifically state that the expenses of national delegates to Codex meetings must be borne by the governments concerned. The conference also urged the CAC to reaffirm the effectiveness of detailed written comments on draft standards, draft codes of practice, etc., which should be fully considered at Codex meetings - especially comments from countries not able to be represented at the meetings.


Considering that the last global Food Standards Conference took place in 1962, that the last Food Additives Conference took place in 1973 and that there has never been a worldwide conference on the very important topic of import/export problems in the area of food control, the 1991 Conference on Food Standards, Chemicals in Food and Food Trade may be regarded as a landmark in years to come. It was a fruitful conference which generated an unusually large number of decisions and recommendations, several of which chart new directions to be followed. Having assembled a large number of participants from around the world - regulatory officials and representatives of the food industry, the food chemical industry, the import/export trade in food, consumers and many international organizations - and having achieved a wide measure of agreement as to future action on many important and topical issues, the March 1991 conference generated an impetus whose forward action must be ensured.

Conférence FAO/OMS sur les normes alimentaires, les substances chimiques dans les aliments et le commerce des denrées alimentaires

La Conférence sur les normes alimentaires, les substances chimiques dans les aliments et le commerce des denrées alimentaires, parrainée par la FAO et l'OMS, en coopération avec le GATT, s'est tenue à Rome en mars 1991. Y ont participé 383 représentants de 79 pays et de 28 organisations Internationales. Il s'agissait de rendre la Commission du Codex Alimentarius sur les normes alimentaires Internationales plus sensible aux besoins des gouvernements; d'examiner les réalisations et l'efficacité du Comité FAO/OMS d'experts sur les additifs alimentaires et de celui sur les résidus de pesticides; d'identifier les principaux problèmes de contrôle des aliments importés/exportés qui entravent le commerce mondial des denrées et de proposer des solutions.

M. Saouma, Directeur général de la FAO, a déclaré: «Je suis parfaitement conscient que les pays importateurs se doivent de protéger la santé de leurs consommateurs, mais cela ne doit pas les conduire à prendre des mesures qui risquent de freiner les exportations alimentaires, et notamment celles des pays du tiers monde.» Il a exprimé l'espoir que les délibérations de la Conférence «suggéreraient des moyens d'harmoniser les prescriptions des pays importateurs en matière de sécurité et de certification des produits alimentaires, afin qu'elles soient accessibles aux pays en développement... Beaucoup de pays exportateurs, a-t-il ajouté, notamment les nouveaux venus, sont déconcertés par la multiplicité des prescriptions existant dans les pays importateurs...» Le rôle nouveau et important que les normes du Codex pourraient jouer dans le cadre des Négociations commerciales multilatérales d'Uruguay sur les produits agricoles a également été souligné.

On a fait valoir que la Commission du Codex Alimentarius concourt à assurer la protection des consommateurs et à faciliter le commerce international des produits alimentaires, mais on est convenu qu'elle devrait réexaminer ses normes pour veiller à ce qu'elles correspondent aux besoins actuels en matière de législation alimentaire et pour qu'elles soient tout à fait à jour du point de vue scientifique. Un examen des procédures d'acceptation des normes Codex et une étude des mécanismes permettant une participation accrue des pays en développement aux travaux de la Commission ont été préconisés. La participation plus active des consommateurs à la prise de décisions, au niveau tant national qu'international, et une meilleure information du public par les gouvernements, l'industrie et les organisations internationales afin de dissiper les craintes concernant l'innocuité des aliments ont été prônées. On a recommandé le renforcement des travaux des comités FAO/OMS sur les additifs alimentaires et sur les résidus de pesticides et l'élargissement des activités du Comité mixte FAO/OMS d'experts des additifs alimentaires (JECFA) aux aliments nouveaux et aux ingrédients et aliments produits à l'aide des biotechnologies. La nécessité de fournir une assistance technique accrue aux pays en développement en matière de contrôle des aliments pour accroître leurs possibilités d'exportation a été soulignée, et la formation d'inspecteurs, de personnel de laboratoire et de cadres de direction pour le contrôle des aliments a reçu une priorité très élevée. Les participants ont fait valoir que la FAO et l'OMS devraient continuer à chercher les moyens de favoriser la participation des pays en développement aux réunions du Codex. La Conférence a adopté des recommandations visant à aider les pays en développement à obtenir des renseignements sur les besoins d'importation et à échanger des informations. La Commission du Codex Alimentarius a été invitée à envisager la création d'un comité chargé des problèmes de contrôle des aliments importés/exportés. Enfin, la Conférence a recommandé que la FAO, l'OMS et la Commission du Codex Alimentarius accordent la priorité à la question de la contamination microbiologique des aliments qui a des répercussions sur le commerce.

Conferencia FAO/OMS sobre normas alimentarias, sustancias químicas en los alimentos y comercio alimentario

En marzo de 1991 se celebró en Roma la Conferencia sobre Normas Alimentarias, Sustancias Químicas en los Alimentos y Comercio Alimentario, patrocinada por la FAO y la OMS, en cooperación con el GATT. Asistieron a la reunión 383 participantes, en representación de 79 países y 28 organizaciones internacionales. Sus objetivos fueron conseguir que la labor de la Comisión del Codex Alimentarius (CCA) en relación con las normas alimentarias internacionales respondiera en mayor medida a las necesidades de los gobiernos, examinar los logros y la eficacia de los comités mixtos FAO/OMS de expertos en aditivos alimentarios y residuos de plaguicidas y determinar los principales problemas del control de las importaciones y exportaciones que obstaculizan el comercio internacional de alimentos y proponer soluciones.

El Sr. Saouma, Director General de la FAO, declaró: «Si bien reconozco plenamente la necesidad de que los países importadores de alimentos protejan la salud de sus consumidores, me preocupa que ello pueda conducir a medidas que puedan retardar las exportaciones de alimentos, sobre todo las provenientes de países en desarrollo». Expresó su esperanza de que las deliberaciones de la Conferencia sugirieran «posibles formas de armonizar los requisitos de inocuidad y certificación de los alimentos de los países importadores, de forma que sean asequibles a los países en desarrollo. Muchos países exportadores, sobre todo los nuevos exportadores, quedan desconcertados por la variedad de requisitos estipulados por los distintos países importadores...» También se subrayó la nueva e importante función prevista para las normas del Codex en el marco de la Ronda Uruguay de Negociaciones Comerciales Multilaterales sobre productos agrícolas.

Al tiempo que se insistió en que la CCA contribuía a ofrecer una buena protección a los consumidores y facilitar el comercio internacional de alimentos, se convino en que esta Comisión debería examinar sus normas para cerciorarse de que reflejan las necesidades actuales en el ámbito de la legislación alimentaria y están plenamente actualizadas desde el punto de vista científico. Se propugnó un examen de los procedimientos de aceptación de las normas del Codex, así como de los mecanismos para posibilitar una mayor participación de los países en desarrollo en las actividades de la CCA. Se alentó a que se intensificara la participación de los consumidores en la adopción de decisiones, tanto a nivel nacional como internacional, y se mejorara la comunicación de los gobiernos, la industria y las organizaciones internacionales con el público para calmar los temores en relación con la inocuidad de los alimentos. Se recomendó que se intensificaran las actividades de los comités mixtos FAO/OMS de expertos en aditivos alimentarios y residuos de plaguicidas y se ampliaran las actividades del Comité. Mixto FAO/OMS de Expertos en Aditivos Alimentarios (JECFA) para incluir nuevos alimentos e ingredientes alimentarios y alimentos obtenidos mediante la aplicación de biotecnología. Se subrayó la necesidad de prestar a los países en desarrollo más asistencia técnica en relación con el control de los alimentos para aumentar sus posibilidades de exportación y se estimó que la capacitación de personal administrativo, de inspección y de laboratorio era sumamente prioritaria. Los participantes insistieron en que la FAO y la OMS deberían continuar buscando posibles modos de facilitar la participación de los países en desarrollo en las reuniones del Codex. La Conferencia aprobó recomendaciones encaminadas a ayudar a los países en desarrollo a obtener datos sobre las necesidades de importación y a intercambiar información. Se pidió a la CCA que considerara la posibilidad de establecer un comité que se ocupara de los problemas relativos al control de las importaciones y exportaciones de alimentos. Por último, la Conferencia recomendó que la FAO, la OMS y la CCA prestaran atención prioritaria a la contaminación microbiológica de los alimentos que tiene repercusiones en el comercio.

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