Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page

Codex Alimentarius: how it all began

Codex Alimentarius: comment il a vu le jour
El Codex Alimentarius: cómo comenzó todo

A. Randell

Alan Randell is a Senior Officer for the Food Quality and Standards Service, FAO Food and Nutrition Division.

The FAO/WHO Codex Alimentarius Commission is one of the best known and most successful cooperative projects between two United Nations agencies. It was founded by FAO in 1961, 16 years after the founding of FAO itself. In some ways, though, the origins of Codex Alimentarius go back even further than 1945.


Protecting the purity of the nation's food supply has been a function of governments for centuries. In ancient Athens, beer and wines were inspected for purity and soundness. The Romans had a well-organized State food control system to protect consumers from fraud or bad produce. In Europe in the Middle Ages, individual countries passed laws concerning the quality and safety of eggs, sausages, cheese, beer, wine and bread. Some of these ancient statutes still exist today.

It was not until the second half of the nineteenth century that the first general food laws were developed and the beginnings of structured food control systems put in place. Laws and standards established at this time were mainly designed to prevent adulteration and to protect consumers against fraud. Food chemistry became a recognized field of endeavour in this period, and the determination of the "purity" of a food was primarily based on the chemical parameters of simple food composition. Chemistry, however, posed other problems when industrial chemicals were used to preserve or colour foods or to disguise their true nature. The concept of "adulteration" was extended to include the illegal use of harmful chemicals in foods.

Countries approached these problems in different ways. Some early "pure food" laws left a great deal of discretion to the official analytical chemist to determine whether or not a food was adulterated. Basic food standards or regulations were developed in association with these laws, often addressing particular problems such as the addition of water to milk or the presence of harmful chemical preservatives such as sodium borate. Food laws and food standards were approached differently in different legal structures. In the Austro-Hungarian Empire between 1897 and 1911, a collection of standards and product descriptions for a wide variety of foods was developed as the Codex Alimentarius Austriacus. Mainly the outcome of a voluntary effort on the part of experts in the food industry and universities, the Codex Alimentarius Austriacus was not, strictly speaking, a collection of legally enforceable food standards. It was, however, used by the courts to determine standards of identity for foods (Davies, 1970). It was to lend its name to the present-day international Codex Alimentarius Commission.

The different sets of standards arising from the spontaneous and independent development of food laws and standards by different countries had the effect of creating inevitable barriers to food trade. This problem came to be recognized in the early years of the twentieth century, and trade associations were formed to put pressure on governments to harmonize their food standards so as to allow trade in safe foods of defined quality. One of the earliest such associations was the International Dairy Federation (IDF), founded in 1903, whose work on standards for milk and milk products was later to be an important catalyst in the development of the Codex Alimentarius Commission.


The devastation of the Second World War, especially in Europe, convinced politicians and economists that improved agricultural trade would be essential for rapid reconstruction and the ability to feed people. In this spirit, United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt convened FAO's founding conference, the United Nations' Conference on Food and Agriculture, in Hot Springs, Virginia in 1943. The conference recognized that different standards in different countries would create problems in trade and in the ability of the world to feed people in nutritionally deficient areas. It called on the new organization to help governments extend and improve standards of nutrient content and purity for all important foods; and to help governments consider the formulation and adoption of similar international standards to facilitate and protect the interchange of products between countries.

Following the creation of FAO in 1945 and the World Health Organization in 1948, the two organizations began a series of joint expert meetings on nutrition and related areas. In 1950, experts at the first meeting of the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Nutrition stated: "Food regulations in different countries are often conflicting and contradictory. Legislation governing preservation, nomenclature and acceptable food standards often varies widely from country to country. New legislation not based on scientific knowledge is often introduced, and little account may be taken of nutritional principles in formulating regulations" (FAO/WHO, 1950). Noting that the conflicting nature of food regulations may be an obstacle to trade and may therefore affect the distribution of nutritionally valuable food, the committee suggested that FAO and WHO should study these problems more closely.

Codex international food standards facilitate global trade - Les normes alimentaires internationales du Codex facilitent le commerce mondial - Las normas alimentarias internacionales del Codex facilitan el comercio mundial

One of the most critical problems to emerge from the studies of FAO and WHO regards the use of food additives. The report of the fourth session of the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Nutrition (FAO/WHO, 1955) noted that "the increasing, and sometimes insufficiently controlled, use of food additives has become a matter of public and administrative concern". It also noted that the means of solving problems involved in the use of food additives may differ from country to country and stated that this fact "must in itself occasion concern, since the existence of widely differing control measures may well form an undesirable deterrent to international trade". Also in 1955, the year that report was published, FAO and WHO convened the first Joint FAO/WHO Conference on Food Additives. The Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) began work immediately and still meets regularly. At its first meeting, it articulated the General principles for the use of food additives, a text that still forms the framework for consideration of food additive use. It may be found, in a slightly modified form, in Volume 1 of the Codex Alimentarius (FAO/WHO, 1992).

Work on standards for food commodities also began in earnest in the early 1950s. In 1951 an international convention on the naming and composition requirements of particular varieties of cheese was signed in the Italian city of Stresa. The Committee on Inland Transport of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (ECE) Initiated work to provide quality standards for fresh fruit and vegetables moving in trade in Europe, with the objective of preventing disputes over the handling of these products during transport. These standards were to form the basis for the current work of the Codex Alimentarius Commission on quality requirements for fresh tropical fruit and vegetables moving in trade anywhere in the world.

The Codex Alimentarius Commission develops quality requirements for fresh tropical fruit and vegetables traded throughout the world - La Commission du Codex Alimentarius élabore des prescriptions qualitatives pour les fruits et légumes frais tropicaux exportés dans le monde entier - La Comisión del Codex Alimentarius está elaborando requisitos de calidad para las frutas y hortalizas naturales comercializadas en todo el mundo

In the late 1950s, FAO and ECE independently began work on requirements and analytical procedures for determining the purity of fruit juices. This work, together with ECE's work on standards for quick-frozen fruits and vegetables, was later taken over by the Codex Alimentarius Commission.

More important was the work of IDF on standards and labelling requirements for milk and milk products. After an initial period in which it developed its own standards, IDF asked FAO to take over the task as an intergovernmental and truly international organization. The Joint FAO/WHO Committee of Government Experts on the Code of Principles concerning Milk and Milk Products began its work in 1958. The committee developed formal procedures for the elaboration of its standards which involved consultation with governments between meetings of the committee itself. These procedures, in a modified form, are the procedures used today by the Codex Alimentarius Commission for the development of worldwide Codex-standards.


Regional efforts to harmonize national food standards had begun after the Second World War. In Latin America, Carlos Grau of Argentina was promoting the idea of a Código Latino-Americano de Alimentos. The Austrian Codex Alimentarius Austriacus had not been forgotten, even though it was little known beyond the German-speaking countries of Europe. The idea of a Europe-wide Codex Alimentarius based on the Austrian model was actively pursued by Hans Frenzel of Austria between 1954 and 1958 (FAO/WHO, 1992). Frenzel's work culminated in the creation of the Council of the Codex Alimentarius Europaeus in June 1958 under the joint sponsorship of the International Commission on Agricultural Industries and the International Bureau of Analytical Chemistry. Progress made by the council was not rapid; its funds were limited and, according to Davies (1970), it never managed to resolve the numerous controversial points that arose on individual standards. In August 1960, the council proposed to WHO that it should associate itself with that organization, WHO referred the matter to FAO for discussion of the outlines of how an agreement to take over the work could be reached.


Events then moved very quickly. The First FAO Regional Conference for Europe, meeting in Rome in October 1960, stated: "The desirability of international agreement on minimum food standards and related questions (including labelling requirements, methods of analysis, etc.) was recognized as an important means of protecting the consumer's health, of ensuring quality and of reducing trade barriers, particularly in the rapidly integrating market of Europe." The conference also felt that coordination of the growing number of food standards programmes undertaken by many organizations presented a particular problem (FAO, 1960).

From February 1961, the Director-General of FAO, B.R. Sen, actively entered into discussions with WHO, ECE, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the Council of the Codex Alimentarius Europaeus with proposals that would lead to the establishment of an international food standards programme. The President of the Council of the Codex Alimentarius Europaeus informed the Director-General that the proposed programme had been formally accepted by the council on 3 June 1961. This was reported to the Council of FAO at its thirty-fifth session in mid-June 1961 (FAO, 1962a). In November 1961 the eleventh session of the Conference of FAO passed the resolution by which the Codex Alimentarius Commission was established (FAO, 1962b).


The Joint FAO/WHO Food Standards Conference, convened in Geneva in June 1962, established the framework for cooperation between the two agencies. The Codex Alimentarius Commission was to be the body responsible for implementing the Joint FAO/WHO Food Standards Programme. The work of the Latin American Código, the Council of the Codex Alimentarius Europaeus, the FAO Committee of Government Experts on the Code of Principles concerning Milk and Milk Products and ECE on quality standards for fresh fruits and vegetables was gradually to be incorporated into the programme, as would the joint FAO/WHO work on food additives and pesticide residues. The conference also hammered out guidelines for the commission's first session. In May 1963, the Sixteenth World Health Assembly approved the establishment of the Joint FAO/WHO Food Standards Programme with the Codex Alimentarius Commission as its principal organ (WHO, 1970) and cleared the way for the commission to hold its first session in Rome in October 1963. Some 120 participants from 30 countries and 16 international organizations attended.


At first glance, the Codex Alimentarius Commission of today would probably not be recognizable to the people whose far-sighted actions are described above. It has held 21 sessions, the latest in July 1995. Its membership has grown from 30 countries, mainly industrialized, to 151 countries representing almost all stages of development (see Figure). Its budget is currently US$5.17 million for the biennium, with FAO providing 82 percent of the budget and WHO 18 percent. Membership covers over 97 percent of the world's population. The commission's plenary meetings are attended by as many as 350 people, representing over 70 countries; some meetings of Codex committees attract a participation almost as large.

Participation in sessions of the Codex Alimentarius Commission, 1963-1995 - Participation aux réunions de la Commission du Codex Alimentarius, 1963-1995 - Participación en las reuniones de la Comisión del Codex Alimentarius, 1963-1995

The Codex Alimentarius Commission has adapted to the needs of its member countries. The regional Coordinating Committee for Europe was formed in 1965 to maintain the impetus created by the Council of the Codex Alimentarius Europaeus. Regional coordinating committees were subsequently established for Africa (1973), Asia (1976), Latin America and the Caribbean (1975) and North America and the Southwest Pacific (1989). As work in specific areas has been completed, Codex committees have adjourned sine die, allowing the following new committees to be established: Cereals, Pulses and Legumes (1979); Vegetable Proteins (1979); Residues of Veterinary Drugs in Foods (1983); and Food Import and Export Inspection and Certification Systems (1991).

The Codex programme, too, has changed. There is far less emphasis on the detailed standards for specific foods that were the hallmark of the Codex Alimentarius Austriacus and Codex Alimentarius Europaeus. Far from appearing as loose-leaf booklets, new Codex standards will be published on CD-ROM.

Yet the Codex Alimentarius Commission does show traces of its origins. Its name, which is Latin for "food code" or "food law", obviously derives from the Codex Alimentarius Austriacus. Its detailed procedures for the elaboration of standards were first tested by the Joint FAO/WHO Committee of Government Experts on the Code of Principles concerning Milk and Milk Products. The arrangement, unique in the United Nations system, whereby host governments are responsible for the funding and operation of the subsidiary Codex committees on a permanent basis was used by the Council of the Codex Alimentarius Europaeus as a means of defraying costs. Its careful attention to the problems of food additives and pesticide residues is based on the pioneering work of FAO and WHO in the early 1950s. Its attention to trade as a means of enhancing food security and consumer protection can be traced to the decisions taken at the 1943 Hot Springs conference, where representatives of 34 countries set out a programme to free the world from hunger and malnutrition.

The Codex Alimentarius Commission has succeeded in meeting most of the challenges set out for it by the 1962 Joint FAO/WHO Food Standards Conference. Its role as a coordinating mechanism for developing food standards, regional or international, is unquestioned. No modern international or regional body would consider developing such standards outside the Codex mechanism. The published Codex Alimentarius requires 14 volumes to lay out its 237 food standards, 37 codes of hygienic and good manufacturing practice, 3 700 maximum limits for pesticide residues and numerous other guidelines and recommendations.

In March 1991, the Joint FAO/WHO Conference on Food Standards, Chemicals in Food and Food Trade put new challenges to the Codex Alimentarius Commission to prepare it for its new role as a provider of international science-based food standards under the Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures and the Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade of the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). These agreements entered into force on 1 January 1995. The Codex Alimentarius Commission has found, at long last, the legal framework for the use of its standards. As a result of the Uruguay Round agreements there will be more challenges for the Codex Alimentarius Commission. They will be met.


Davies, J.H.V. 1970. The Codex Alimentarius. J. Assoc. Publ. Anal., 8: 53-67.

FAO. 1960. Report of the Conference for Europe. 10-15 October 1960. Rome.

FAO. 1962a. Report of the Council of FAO. Thirty-fifth session. 19-29 June 1961. Rome.

FAO. 1962b. Resolution No. 12/61. Report of the eleventh session of the Conference. 4-24 November 1961. Rome.

FAO/WHO. 1950. Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Nutrition, Report of the first session. WHO Technical Report Series No. 16. Geneva, WHO.

FAO/WHO. 1955. Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Nutrition. Report of the fourth session. WHO Technical Report Series No. 97. Geneva, WHO.

FAO/WHO. 1992. Section 5. General principles for the use of food additives. In Codex Alimentarius, Vol. 1. General requirements. Rome.

WHO. 1970. Resolution WHA 16.42. Reported in Document EB47/WP/5. Geneva, (Unpublished).

Codex Alimentarius: comment il a vu le jour

La Commission FAO/OMS du Codex Alimentarius tire son nom du Codex alimentarius Austriacus, recueil de normes et de descriptions de produits pour aliments mis au point par l'industrie alimentaire et les universités de l'Empire austro-hongrois. En fait, les normes et réglementations alimentaires, qui existaient déjà dans l'Europe du Moyen Age, remontent à la Grèce et à la Rome antique. Mais l'adoption, en ordre dispersé par les pays, de différents corpus de lois et de normes a entravé les échanges au 19e siècle. Au 20e siècle, les groupements professionnels commencèrent à s'intéresser à l'harmonisation des normes alimentaires comme moyen de favoriser le commerce d'aliments dont l'innocuité et la qualité seraient clairement définies.

En 1943, la Conférence des Nations Unies sur l'alimentation et l'agriculture a reconnu que des normes discordantes seraient une source de problèmes pour le commerce et un obstacle à l'approvisionnement en aliments des secteurs frappés de carences nutritionnelles. La FAO, qui venait d'être créée, encouragea les gouvernements à envisager l'élaboration et l'adoption de normes internationales similaires pour protéger les échanges de produits entre pays.

Dix-neuf ans plus tard, la Commission du Codex Alimentarius était créée pour mettre en oeuvre le Programme mixte FAO/OMS sur les normes alimentaires. En faisaient partie le Código latino-américain, le Codex Alimentarius européen, le Comité FAO/OMS d'experts gouvernementaux sur le Code de principes concernant le lait et les produits laitiers et le Comité des transports intérieurs de la Commission économique des Nations Unies pour l'Europe concernant les normes de qualité pour les fruits et légumes frais. En 1995,1e nombre des membres du Codex était passé de 30 pays, industrialisés pour la plupart, à 151 pays, couvrant plus de 97 pour cent de la population mondiale.

La Commission s'adapte aux besoins de ses pays membres. C'est ainsi qu'un Comité de coordination pour l'Europe a été créé en 1965, suivi des comités pour l'Afrique en 1973, l'Asie en 1976, l'Amérique latine et les Caraïbes en 1975 et l'Amérique du Nord et le Pacifique Sud-Ouest en 1989. Par la suite, des comités ont été constitués pour traiter de produits alimentaires ou de questions spécifiques (Comité sur les céréales, les légumes secs et les légumineuses, en 1979, ou le Comité sur les résidus de médicaments vétérinaires dans les aliments, en 1983, par exemple).

Le Codex a relevé la plupart des défis lancés par la Conférence mixte FAO/OMS de 1962 sur les normes alimentaires. C'est incontestablement le mécanisme de coordination indiqué pour l'élaboration de normes alimentaires internationales et régionales. Ses publications comprennent 14 volumes regroupant 237 normes alimentaires, 37 codes d'usages en matière d'hygiène et de bonnes pratiques, 3 700 limites maximales pour les résidus de pesticides et nombre d'autres directives et recommandations.

En mars 1991, la Conférence mixte FAO/OMS sur les normes alimentaires, les substances chimiques dans les aliments et le commerce des denrées alimentaires a vivement exhorté la Commission du Codex alimentarius à se préparer à son nouveau rôle de pourvoyeur de normes alimentaires scientifiques internationales dans le cadre des accords issus des négociations commerciales multilatérales d'Uruguay relatifs à l'application des mesures sanitaires et phytosanitaires et aux obstacles techniques au commerce. L'entrée en vigueur de ces accords, le 1er janvier 1995, a doté la Commission du Codex Alimentarius du cadre juridique pour l'utilisation de ses normes.

El Codex Alimentarius: cómo comenzó todo

El nombre de la Comisión Mixta FAO/OMS del Codex Alimentarius deriva del Codex Alimentarius Austriacus, una colección de normas y descripciones de productos para alimentos preparada por la industria de alimentos y las universidades del imperio austrohúngaro. En realidad, las normas y leyes alimentarias se remontan a la Grecia y Roma antiguas, pasando por Europa en la Edad Media. En el siglo XIX el hecho de que en diversos países existieran conjuntos diferentes de leyes y normas creó barreras comerciales. En el siglo XX, las asociaciones comerciales empezaron a interesarse por la unificación de las normas alimentarias para permitir el comercio de alimentos inocuos y de una calidad determinada.

En 1943, la Conferencia de las Naciones Unidas para la Agricultura y la Alimentación reconoció que la existencia de normas diferentes podía crear problemas en el comercio y limitar el suministro de alimentos en las zonas nutricionalmente deficitarias, por lo que la FAO, desde su fundación, alentó a los Gobiernos a examinar la formulación y aprobación de normas internacionales para proteger el intercambio de productos entre países.

Diecinueve años después se creó la Comisión del Codex Alimentarius para ejecutar el Programa Conjunto FAO/OMS sobre Normas Alimentarias. En ella se incluyó el Código Latinoamericano, el Codex Alimentarius Europeo, el Comité de Expertos Gubernamentales sobre el Código de Principios Referentes a la Leche y los Productos Lácteos, de la FAO, y el Comité de Transportes por tierra de la Comisión Económica de las Naciones Unidas para Europa sobre las normas relativas a la calidad de las frutas y hortalizas frescas. En 1995 los miembros del Codex crecieron. De los 30 países industrializados del inicio pasaron a 151 países, cubriendo más del 97 por ciento de la población mundial.

La Comisión se adapta a las necesidades de sus países miembros. Por ejemplo, se formó un Comité de coordinación regional para Europa en 1965 y posteriormente se crearon uno para Africa en 1973, para Asia en 1976, América Latina y el Caribe en 1975, y América del Norte y el Pacífico Sudoccidental en 1989. Posteriormente, se crearon nuevos comités para tratar alimentos o asuntos determinados (por ejemplo, cereales, legumbres y leguminosas en 1979, o residuos de medicamentos veterinarios en los alimentos en 1983).

El Codex ha hecho frente a la mayoría de los problemas planteados por la Conferencia FAO/OMS sobre Normas Alimentarias celebrada en 1962. Sin lugar a dudas, es el mecanismo de coordinación para la elaboración de normas alimentarias internacionales y regionales. La publicación del Codex Alimentarius consta de 14 volúmenes que contienen 237 normas alimentarias, 37 códigos de prácticas de higiene y de buena fabricación, 3 700 límites máximos de residuos de plaguicidas, y otras numerosas directrices y recomendaciones.

En marzo de 1991, la Conferencia FAO/OMS sobre Normas Alimentarias, Sustancias Químicas en los Alimentos y Comercio Alimentario planteó nuevas exigencias a la Comisión del Codex Alimentarius en preparación para su nueva función de elaboración de normas alimentarias internacionales con base científica en el marco de los acuerdos de la Ronda Uruguay del GATT sobre la aplicación de medidas sanitarias y fitosanitarias, y sobre las barreras técnicas al comercio. Cuando dichos acuerdos entraron en vigor e 1º de enero de 1995 la Comisión del Codex Alimentarius comenzó a contar con un marco jurídico para la utilización de sus normas.

Previous Page Top of Page Next Page