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ANNEX 4. Understanding the Joint FAO/WHO Codex Alimentarius Commission


The Eleventh Session of the Conference of FAO in 1961 and the Sixteenth World Health Assembly in 1963 both passed resolutions to establish the Codex Alimentarius Commission. The two bodies also adopted the Statutes and Rules of Procedure for the Commission.

The Statutes provide the legal basis for the Commission's work and formally reflect the concepts behind and reasons for its establishment. Article 1 of the Statutes provides the Commission with its purposes, terms of reference and objectives:


The Codex Alimentarius Commission shall... be responsible for making proposals to, and shall be consulted by, the Directors-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) on all matters pertaining to the implementation of the Joint FAO/WHO Food Standards Programme, the purpose of which is:

(a) Protecting the health of consumers and ensuring fair practices in the food trade;

(b) Promoting coordination of all food standards work undertaken by international governmental and non-governmental organizations;

(c) Determining priorities and initiating and guiding the preparation of draft standards through and with the aid of appropriate organizations;

(d) Finalizing standards elaborated under (c) above and, after acceptance by governments, publishing them in a Codex Alimentarius either as regional or world wide standards, together with international standards already finalized by other bodies under (b) above, wherever this is practicable;

(e) Amending published standards, after appropriate survey in the light of developments.

Article 2 defines eligibility for membership of the Commission which is open to all Member Nations and Associate Members of FAO and WHO. In 2002, membership comprised 167 countries, representing 97 percent of the world's population.

The Rules of Procedure of the Codex Alimentarius Commission describe and formalize working procedures appropriate to an intergovernmental body. They provide for:

Currently, the Commission meets every two years, alternately at FAO headquarters in Rome and at WHO headquarters in Geneva. Between sessions of the Commission, the Executive Committee acts on behalf of the Commission. Plenary sessions of the Commission are attended by as many as 500 people. Representation at sessions is on a country basis. National delegations are led by senior officials appointed by their governments. Delegations may, and often do, include representatives of industry, consumers' organizations and academic institutes. Countries that are not yet members of the Commission sometimes attend in an observer capacity.

A number of international governmental organizations and international NGOs also attend in an observer capacity. Although they are "observers", the tradition of the Codex Alimentarius Commission allows such organizations to put forward their points of view at every stage except in the final decision, which is the exclusive prerogative of Member Governments.

To facilitate continuous contact with member countries, the Commission, in collaboration with national governments, has established country Codex Contact Points and many member countries have National Codex Committees to coordinate activities nationally.

Interest in Codex Alimentarius activities has been growing steadily since the Commission began, and the increasing involvement of developing countries in its work has been a highlight of the progress made as well as a vindication of the foresight shown by the founders of the Commission.

The SPS and TBT agreements of the WTO have accorded additional status to the work of Codex. Codex standards are explicitly recognized as reference in international trade disputes.


Compiling the Codex Alimentarius

One of the principal purposes of the Commission is the preparation of food standards and their publication in the Codex Alimentarius.

The legal base for the Commission's operations and the procedures it is required to follow are published in the Codex Alimentarius - Procedural Manual, currently in its twelfth edition. Like all other aspects of the Commission's work, the procedures for preparing standards are well defined, open and transparent. In essence they involve:

A "Format for Codex Commodity Standards and their Content" is provided in the Procedural Manual of the Codex Alimentarius. It includes the following categories of information:

In addition to commodity standards, the Codex Alimentarius includes general standards, which have across-the-board application to all foods and are not product-specific. There are general standards or recommendations for:

The Commission and its subsidiary bodies are committed to revision of Codex standards and related texts as necessary to ensure they are consistent with and reflect current scientific knowledge. Each member of the Commission is responsible for identifying and presenting to the appropriate committee any new scientific and other relevant information that may warrant revision of existing Codex standards or related texts. The procedure for revision follows that used for the initial preparation of standards.

Structure of the Codex Alimentarius

The volumes contain general principles, general standards, definitions, codes, commodity standards, methods and recommendations. The contents list is well organized for ease of reference, for example:

Volume 1A - General Requirements

1. General Principles of the Codex Alimentarius;

2. Definitions for the Purpose of Codex Alimentarius;

3. Code of Ethics for International Trade in Foods;

4. Food Labelling;

5. Food Additives - including the General Standard for Food Additives;

6. Contaminants in Food - including the General Standard for Contaminants and Toxins in Foods;

7. Irradiated Foods;

8. Food Import and Export Food Inspection and Certification Systems.

Published volumes of the Codex Alimentarius are available in English, French and Spanish, and individual standards are available on the World Wide Web and CD-ROM.


Under its Rules of Procedure, the Commission is empowered to establish two kinds of subsidiary body:

A feature of the committee system is that, with few exceptions, each committee is hosted by a member country, which is chiefly responsible for the cost of the committee's maintenance and administration and for providing its chairperson.

General Subject Committees are so called because their work has relevance for a wide range of foodstuffs. General Subject Committees are sometimes referred to as "horizontal committees".

Among other things, these Committees develop all-embracing concepts and principles applying to foods in general, specific foods or groups of foods; endorse or review relevant provisions in Codex commodity standards and, based on the advice of expert scientific bodies, develop major recommendations pertaining to consumers' health and safety.

Commodity Committees have responsibility for developing standards for specific foods or classes of food. In order to distinguish them from the "horizontal committees" and recognize their exclusive responsibilities, they are often referred to as "vertical" committees.

Commodity Committees convene as necessary and go into recess or are abolished when the Commission decides their work has been completed. New committees may be established on an ad hoc basis to cover specific needs for the development of new standards.

Host countries call meetings of Codex subsidiary bodies at intervals of between one and two years, according to need. Attendance at some Codex committees is almost as large as that drawn by a plenary session of the Commission.

Coordinating Committees have no standing host countries. Meetings are hosted by countries of a region on an ad hoc basis and in agreement with the Commission. There are six Coordinating Committees, i.e. one each for the following regions:

Coordinating Committees play an invaluable role in ensuring that the work of the Commission is responsive to regional interests and to the concerns of developing countries. They meet at one- to two-year intervals, with a good representation from the countries of their respective regions. Meeting reports are submitted to and discussed by the Commission.

Task Forces (ad hoc Intergovernmental Task Forces)

In order to expedite work on specific subjects, the Commission also establishes time-limited ad hoc intergovernmental task forces whose mandate normally does not exceed five years. The first three task forces were established in 1999 and dealt with:


The harmonization of food standards is generally viewed as a prerequisite to the protection of consumer health as well as allowing the fullest possible facilitation of international trade. For that reason, the Uruguay Round Agreements on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS) and Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT) both encourage the international harmonization of food standards.

Harmonization can only be achieved when all countries adopt the same standards. The General Principles of the Codex Alimentarius specify the ways in which member countries may "accept" Codex standards. Forms of acceptance vary somewhat depending on whether the standard is a commodity standard, a general standard, or concerns levels for pesticide or veterinary drug residues or food additives. Generally, however, the proposed forms of acceptance are full acceptance, acceptance with minor deviations and free distribution. The ways of acceptance are clearly defined in the General Principles, and their suitability in the light of experience is subject to review by the Codex Committee on General Principles.

General principles, guidelines and recommended codes of practice

Instruments such as principles and codes have been developed for the express purpose of protecting the health of consumers against food-borne hazards. For example, general principles have been developed for the use of food additives, food import and export inspection and certification and the addition of essential nutrients to foods.

The Codex Alimentarius contains wide-ranging guidelines for the protection of consumers, including such diverse subjects as the Establishment and Application of Microbiological Criteria for Foods and Levels for Radionuclides in Foods Following Accidental Nuclear Contamination for Use in International Trade.

It also contains codes of practice, most of which are codes of hygienic practice providing guidance on the production of food that is safe and suitable for consumption - in other words, their purpose is to protect the health of consumers. The Recommended International Code of Practice - General Principles of Food Hygiene applies to all foods. It is particularly important in protecting consumers because it lays a firm foundation for food safety and follows the food chain from primary production through to final consumption, highlighting the key hygiene controls required at each stage.

The General Principles of Food Hygiene are supported by detailed codes of hygienic practice that have specific application to:

The Codex Alimentarius also contains the Recommended International Code of Practice for Control of the Use of Veterinary Drugs, which has the express aim of preventing the use of drugs that create a hazard to human health.

There are also a number of so-called codes of technological practice, which are intended to ensure that the processing, transport and storage of foods produced to Codex standards are such that consumers receive end products that are wholesome and of the expected quality. Codes of technological practice exist for:

Further details of the Codex Alimentarius Commission, its work, and its publications may be found on the website:

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