Agricultural Trade Fact Sheet
Table of Contents



The Uruguay Round gave prominence to an area almost untouched by previous rounds of trade negotiations: food quality and safety. The Agreement an the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures, or SPS Agreement, and the Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade, the TBT Agreement, now provide a framework for strengthening food quality and safety measures taken by governments while at the same time ensuring that such measures are not unjustified or disguised barriers to international trade.

Both Agreements make reference to international Codex Alimentarius standards as the reference points for deciding whether or not national measures meet the usual GATT disciplines of fairness and non-discrimination, and whether or not these national measures are truly justified to protect food quality and safety. In the SPS Agreement this reference is explicit and in the TBT Agreement it is an implicit reference.

The Codex Alimentarius is a collection of food standards, guidelines and other recommendations that define many aspects of food quality and safety for foods moving in international trade. The name Codex Alimentarius is Latin and means "food code" or "food law". The Codex Alimentarius is prepared by the intergovernmental Codex Alimentarius Commission, established in 1962 by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO). Membership of the Commission is open to all Member governments of FAO and WHO. Meetings of the Commission are held in public and attract up to 600 participants from government delegations and intergovernmental and international non-governmental trade, industry, consumer and scientific organizations. The technical work of the Commission is developed by some 30 subject-specific committees and task forces, all of which are open to Codex member country delegations and international non-governmental organization observers.


Codex standards cover a wide range of issues that include pesticide and veterinary residues in food, environmental contaminants and pathogenic organisms in foods, food additives, nutrition, food labelling, and standards for composition and identity of major food commodities. Codex standards are based on sound scientific principles and data and, in relation to food safety, also on scientific risk assessment. They therefore meet the basic principles of both the SPS and TBT Agreements. International Codex standards are essential to ensure that there is a common reference point against which national standards can be tested to determine that they are justified, not arbitrary, and provide an appropriate level of protection which is not in violation of the SPS and TBT requirements.
It is clear that in matters of food safety covered by the SPS Agreement, protection of consumers' health is foremost and in the application of risk analysis to food safety, careful review of all valid scientific data will remain an essential element in the formulation of international Codex standards. Nevertheless, assess-ments of food safety have to be made in the knowledge that "zero risk" is impossible to determine. Codex standards are therefore based on the concept of "no appreciable risk" over a lifetime, with very conservative safety factors applied to provide added assurance that scientific data from laboratory studies provide assurance of protection for all consumers.

Technical barriers to trade in food products can extend to issues such as product composition, labelling and testing procedures. Codex standards and guidelines cover the most common problems in this area, including nutrition labelling and even standard criteria for describing organic or biological foods.


  • 204 Food Standards
  • 43 Codes of Practice
  • 197 Pesticides evaluated
  • 2516 Limits for Pesticide Residues
  • 25 Guideline Levels for Contaminants
  • 1300 Food Additives evaluated
  • 54 Veterinary Drugs evaluated
  • 289 Limits for Veterinary Drug Residues

    Food quality and safety is a priority issue for all Member governments; it is an integral part of their commitments to improved food security following on from the 1996 World Food Summit. It is also an issue that presents current problems to all governments. Recent problems such as "mad cow disease" and dioxins in poultry products have tended to undermine consumers' confidence in food quality and safety measures applied by governments. Surprisingly, the most common problems in food quality and safety beyond 2000 will, for the most part, be the same problems that led to the establishment of the Joint FAO/WHO Food Standards Programme in 1962: poor food handling practices, microbiological contamination, environmental contamination, assuring minimum acceptable levels of composition and nutritional quality, prevention of deceptive practices and food labelling.


  • Food hygiene and microbiological contamination
  • Food additives
  • Environmental contaminants
  • Residues of pesticides and veterinary chemicals
  • Food labelling; nutrition and health claims
  • Inspection and certification systems; methods of analysis and sampling
  • Commodity standards
  • New issues, especially on how to deal with foods derived from biotechnology and criteria for animal feeding must now be added to this list. In response to governments' needs, the Codex Alimentarius Commission has established new intergovernmental task forces to review these issues and make recommendations for new standards, guidelines or other recommendations to provide the international reference points needed to ensure continued consumer health protection and fair practices in the international food trade.


    The SPS and TBT Agreements both provide for recognition that food control measures and the governmental systems that apply these in different countries can achieve the same level of protection or meet the same objectives, even if the measures or the systems are different. Food control is a term covering measures to protect both food quality and food safety. A major international Conference organized by FAO in cooperation with WHO and WTO was held in Melbourne, Australia in October 1999 to provide the framework for the work of the Codex Alimentarius Commission in these areas for 2000 and beyond. The Conference expressed its fullest support for the achievements of Codex, but set out new challenges particularly for strengthening the participation of developing countries in Codex work and for making greater efforts to learn and respond to consumers' legitimate concerns about food safety and quality, and to ensure that food-related communication is a two-way, respectful, interactive process. The Conference called on Governments of Member countries to take all necessary steps to apply Codex standards to all imported, exported and domestically produced and traded foods and to adhere to the Codex Code of Ethics for International Trade in Food in order to ensure that food products exported to developing countries met national or international requirements.


    The Melbourne Conference also stated that governments themselves should accept the challenge of strengthening the capacities and capabilities of their national food regulatory systems by devoting increased resources, improving information technology systems, and participating more actively in international meetings dealing with food regulatory matters. The willingness of developing countries to do this has been clearly demonstrated by their participation in Codex meetings, increasing from just on 50 percent of all participation in the years before the Marrakesh agreements to well over two-thirds in the most recent Codex meetings.

    The establishment of national Codex Alimentarius Committees in developing countries has been responsible for this significant advance. These Committees, or similar structures, usually involve all relevant government ministries such as agriculture, health, and commerce, as well as industry and consumer representatives. These Committees can also form the focus of technical assistance provided under the relevant articles of the SPS and TBT Agreements. FAO has assisted developing countries financing 37 projects (two regional) over the last two years on Codex and related food control areas with over US$ 7,200,000.