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The Codex system: FAO, WHO and the Codex Alimentarius Commission

The Codex Alimentarius Commission was born of necessity.
Its carefully crafted Statutes and Rules of Procedure ensure it pursues its clearly defined objectives in a disciplined, dispassionate and scientific way.



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. Article 2 defines eligibility for membership of the Commission which is open to all Member Nations and Associate Members of FAO and WHO. In 1998, membership comprised 163 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:

Representation. The Commission is truly an international body. Since it was formed, it has held 22 sessions, with chairpersons from Canada, France, Germany, Hungary, Indonesia, Mexico, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Thailand, the United Kingdom and the United States. Vice-chairpersons have been drawn from Australia, Canada, Costa Rica, Denmark, France, Ghana, Hungary, Indonesia, Iraq, Kenya, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Nigeria, Norway, Poland, Senegal, the Sudan, Switzerland, Thailand, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Regional representatives to the Commission have been provided by the Governments of Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Cameroon, Canada, Cuba, the former Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, Ghana, India, Kenya, the Republic of Korea, Malaysia, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, Senegal, Thailand, Tunisia, the United Kingdom, the United States and the former USSR.

The Commission meets every two years, alternately at FAO headquarters in Rome and at WHO headquarters in Geneva. Plenary sessions 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.

Statutes of the Codex Alimentarius Commission


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 stan-dards 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.

The purposes or objectives embraced by Article 1 resulted from a long process of fashioning and refining. Based on a deep insight into and understanding of events that led to the Commission's establishment, they encapsulate the intentions of the Commission's founders.


Who comes to Codex?



Compiling the Codex Alimentarius

As stated in Article 1 of the Commission's statutes, 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 tenth 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 by the General Principles 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:

Revision of Codex standards. 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 (outlined at the beginning of this section).

Structure of the Codex Alimentarius

Collectively, the volumes contain general principles, general standards, definitions, codes, commodity standards, methods and recommendations. The contents list of each volume 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 being made 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.

Codex Committees are classed as either General Subject Committees or Commodity Committees.

General Subject Committees are so called because their work has relevance for all Commodity Committees and, since this work applies across the board to all commodity standards, General Subject Committees are sometimes referred to as "horizontal committees". There are nine such committees:

Among other things, the General Subject 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. There are 16 such 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 five 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.


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.

While the growing world interest in all Codex activities clearly indicates global acceptance of the Codex philosophy - embracing harmonization, consumer protection and facilitation of international trade - in practice it is difficult for many countries to accept Codex standards in the statutory sense. Differing legal formats and administrative systems, varying political systems and sometimes the influence of national attitudes and concepts of sovereign rights impede the progress of harmonization and deter the acceptance of Codex standards.

Despite these difficulties, however, the process of harmonization is gaining impetus by virtue of the strong international desire to facilitate trade.
An increasing number of countries are aligning their national food standards, or parts of them (especially those relating to safety), with those of the Codex Alimentarius. This is particularly so in the case of additives, contaminants and residues, i.e. the invisibles.


FAO and WHO complement the Commission's activities significantly in a number of practical ways. To adopt Codex standards, countries require an adequate food law as well as a technical and administrative infrastructure with the capacity to implement it and ensure compliance. For many years, FAO and WHO have been providing assistance to developing countries to enable them to take full advantage of the Commission's work. This effort has been enhanced to a considerable degree by the financial and technical support received from industrialized countries.

Assistance given to developing countries has included:

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