Codex Commission makes major decisions
on food claims, hygiene, labelling at Geneva meeting

The Codex Alimentarius Commission, the ruling body of the Joint FAO/WHO Food Standards Programme, held its 22nd session from 23 to 28 June, covering a wide-ranging agenda that included food safety and hygiene, food labelling and additives. Here are a few of the highlights of the meeting, attended by 444 participants from 86 countries.

Hygiene in this Moroccan fish canning plant is covered by a recently revised code of practice

What is halal?
In view of expanding consumer demand for "halal" products (food permitted under Islamic law) and rapidly increasing international trade in such products, the Commission approved new guidelines on the use of the term. The guidelines are of a general nature in order to allow for minor differences of interpretation according to the different Islamic schools of thought, and it is recognized that they are subject to the interpretation of the appropriate authorities of the importing countries. However, the certificate granted by the religious authorities of the exporting country should be accepted in principle by the importing country, except when the latter provides justification for other specific requirements.

The guidelines define the criteria for the use of "halal", lawful and unlawful sources of food, general requirements for slaughtering and processing, packaging, storage and transport of foods claimed to be "halal". For example, the guidelines specify that the phrase "Bismillah" ("in the name of Allah") should be invoked immediately before the slaughter of each animal.

How low is "low fat"?
In order to facilitate trade in foods claiming to be "low fat", "sugar free" or "light", the Commission approved new guidelines governing such claims as a supplement to the General Guidelines on Claims. For example, to claim that food is light or reduced it must be a least 25 percent less in energy or nutrient content than the standard product. The labelling must specify the characteristic, i.e. fat or energy, that makes it light. Manufacturers who want to export "low fat" products now must observe an absolute measure: three grams of fat per 100 grams of food. From now on, cheese exporters may not claim their products are low fat since they cannot meet the above criteria; they may only claim they contain reduced fat, that is, 25 percent less fat than the standard product.

The guidelines provide a number of definitions for the claims covered (nutrient content, comparative claims, nutrient function claims) and general requirements concerning consumer information in relation to claims. In particular, any food for which a claim is made should be labelled with a nutrient declaration, in accordance with the Codex Guidelines for Nutrition Labelling.

Food hygiene code revised
In the area of food hygiene, the Commission approved a major revision of the code of practice so that it includes all aspects of the food chain, from production on-farm to preparation in the home, concentrating on the handling, processing and distribution of food products where most of the risks can be controlled.

Unlike previous versions of the code, it is not prescriptive in laying down design elements for factories or transport and storage facilities. Instead, it concentrates on what is needed at each step to prevent or reduce risks of contamination and leaves a significant degree of flexibility to manufacturers or operators and regulatory bodies on how to achieve these objectives. This should make it more amenable for use in developing countries than the previous highly prescriptive version of the code. For example, instead of requiring that stainless steel be used in flour milling plants, any construction material that does not contaminate the flour is acceptable.

Pesticide residues
Pesticide residues are a legitimate cause of concern to consumers and to people who trade in foods. FAO and WHO have been evaluating the safety of residues in foods since 1962 and establishing Maximum Residue Limits (MRLs) to ensure that pesticides are not overused and that any residue is safe for human consumption. Over 2 500 MRLs are currently approved by the Codex Alimentarius Commission. During the June meeting, the Commission deleted 315 MRLs (covering 39 pesticides) from the Codex list as being obsolete. This means that no level of residue is acceptable for those pesticides.

17 July 1997

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