Codex Alimentarius: protecting health, facilitating trade

#ZeroHunger and food safety need to go hand in hand

With the global population on the rise and changes in climate, food is often travelling ever-greater distances to meet our needs. International standards, like the Codex Alimentarius, are vital in ensuring that food trade is safe. ©FAO/TM Dien


Eradicating world hunger can only be achieved if food is safe, nutritious and of good quality. Eating unsafe food increases the chances of contracting diseases and can be, in some cases, deadly. Unsafe food can also lead to rejections causing food to be wasted, which then impacts on food security. One thing is certain: there can be no food security without food safety.

The amount of food traded internationally in the last century has grown exponentially and a large quantity and variety of food travels the globe today. Some foods, such as rice or maize, have been traded internationally for thousands of years. However, until recently, food was mainly produced, sold and consumed locally.

Understanding and defining food safety standards is crucial as the chain from farm to fork gets longer and fewer consumers know the producers of their food. Food standards are vital to guaranteeing safety, quality and a level playing field for trade.

Codex provides the rule book and definitions for food safety and quality in order to help countries safely trade food. Left: ©FAO/Alessandra Benedetti
Right: ©Nikos Economopoulos/ Magnum Photos for FAO

The importance of international standards

International trade can improve the availability of food and compensate, for example, in times of poor regional harvests. However, with global population on the rise and changes in climate, food is often traveling ever-greater distances to meet our needs.

For centuries, countries have independently developed their own food laws and regulations, but differences between these national requirements can disrupt trade flow and impact on the availability of food worldwide.

The Joint FAO/WHO (World Health Organization) Food Standards Programme implemented by the Codex Alimentarius Commission is an international inter-governmental food standards setting body. Its standards are published as the Codex Alimentarius. This “food code” covers the entire production chain, allowing governments to establish science-based, internationally acceptable food standards in order to safely trade food.

Food safety from farm to fork

Since 1963, Codex has developed hundreds of internationally recognized standards, guidelines and codes of practice. The end goal: ensure food is safe and can be traded.

In the case of milk, for example, Codex’s work touches upon primary production by addressing the safety of the feed and that residues of veterinary drugs in the final product do not pose a threat to human health. The process of collecting, transporting and storing milk must also be designed and monitored to ensure its safety. Hygienic processes and sufficient checks must be put in place to ensure that harmful bacteria and other contaminants are controlled and that food stays safe to eat, while nutritional characteristics remain intact. If the milk is to be transported and perhaps transformed into another product, it must be tracked and labelled at each phase. If the product is for export, it will have to meet international standards and regulations. 

Hygienic processes and sufficient checks must be put in place to ensure that harmful bacteria and other contaminants are controlled and that food stays safe to eat. Codex provides governments, industries and other actors with the information they need to ensure this. @PaintedLens/

In 2008, fifty-nine people in North America suffered from a salmonella outbreak after eating melons produced in Honduras. The United States Food and Drug Administration issued a health alert regarding the import of melons from a Honduran company, curbing trade and putting thousands of local jobs at risk.

Honduras needed a set of guidelines that could reduce the major risks of melons becoming unsafe for consumption. The Codex Code of Hygienic Practice for Fresh Fruits and Vegetables includes a specific annex on melons which deals with issues such as ensuring better temperature controls for storing the fruit and improving the personal hygiene of food handlers.

By signing international standards into national legislation, educating production workers and developing a strong testing culture for microbiological hazards, Honduras was able to boost health standards and restart trade, thereby improving the local economy. 

There is no food security without food safety, which is the base for healthy diets and lives.
– José Graziano da Silva, FAO Director-General

Codex is the invisible link between those working in the food chain and the consumer. The Codex Alimentarius is vital for governments, industries and other actors in helping to ensure that your glass of milk or slice of melon is safe to eat regardless of the borders that it has crossed.  

Codex has worked on food safety and trade for over 50 years. Over the years, Codex has updated, modernized existing and created new standards to continue ensuring that all countries have the tools to keep their food safe. Keeping food safe is absolutely vital to eradicating hunger in the world. 

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2. Zero hunger, 3. Good health and well-being, 17. Partnership for the goals