Will the UN's Codex Alimentarius make our food less nutritious?

nutrition label
What started out as a conventional UN bureaucracy has become the subject of wild speculation and fear - just what is the UN's Codex Alimentarius, and what does it mean for our food and health?

Imagine this: a Nazi war criminal establishes a secretive organisation embedded within the United Nations through which shadowy corporate interests force countries to remove the nutritional value from food, allowing food companies to profit from spreading malnutrition.

It sounds like fantasy but this is the essence of the accusations that have been levelled at the Codex Alimentarius over the years.  This body, whose Latin name means "Food Rules" is indeed run by the United Nations, but beyond that most of the lurid accusations can be rejected out of hand.

However there are countless organisations and agencies which run under the aegis of the United Nations; what makes this one so special that wild myths and theories circulate so abundantly about its true purpose?


The Codex Alimentarius was established in 1962 as a joint venture between the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation and the World Health Organisation. Its aim is to establish internationally agreed food standards in order to protect consumers' health and facilitate the international food trade.

All but a handful of countries in the world are members, who meet in committees to agree on rules and standards.  These standards are adopted by consensus, meaning every country has an opportunity to disagree and block adoption. NGOs are allowed to speak at meetings, but they have no direct influence upon the outcomes.

The standards the Coded Alimentarius produces are purely voluntary in nature and members may adopt them for internal or international use as they see fit.

At present a system of over 300 standards, recommendations and guidelines are in place, covering everything from frozen peas to the maximum level of residual animal hormones in meat. For example, the standard on rice details the different sizes of rice that can be considered to be long- or short- grain as well as how much grit is acceptable within a bag of rice and what level of residual pesticide can safely remain upon the grain when sold.

Not so voluntary

But what appears to be voluntary is not quite so simple. In 1994 the World Trade Organisation (WTO) was established as the inheritor to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).  One of the significant differences between the two is that the WTO curtails a country's ability to formulate its own food import requirements. The WTO's Sanitary and Phytosanitary Standards (SPS) Agreement states that: 'members shall ensure that their sanitary or phytosanitary measures ... [take] into account risk assessment techniques developed by the relevant international organizations'.

The agreement goes on to define the relevant international organisation for food standards to be the Codex Alimentarius. In a stroke this changes it from a voluntary set of standards to a benchmark against which a country's openness to free trade can be judged.

It is this close relationship between the Codex Alimentarius and the SPS Agreement that leads many to say that the Codex Alimentarius standards are legally binding. In truth they are not and while the SPS Agreement requires countries to adopt an appropriate standard which takes the Codex Alimentarius into account, the Codex Alimentarius standards are not mandatory per se. However it is difficult to imagine how a country can agree to a standard in the Codex Alimentarius, where it has a blocking vote, and then decide to use a radically different standard to fulfil its obligations under the WTO. This is because the Codex Alimentarius standards are meant to protect human health and promote international trade. A less stringent standard would be seen as a threat to human health; a more stringent one a barrier to international trade.

Consequently, according to Rob Verkerk, Director of the Alliance for Natural Health (ANH), poorer countries often lack the resources to give them the competence which would enable them to participate fully in all Codex Alimentarius meetings. This leaves influential Codex Alimentarius committees dominated by a handful of countries, including the EU, Canada, the USA and Australia.

To demonstrate this, he points to the ten year dispute between the EU and the USA over animal hormone injections which has cost the EU over $1.2bn, according to the ANH's figures, and remains unresolved today. Few individual countries would be able to spend such money on disputing food standards.

This perspective appears to be supported by the soon-to-be-disbanded Food Standards Agency, whose spokesperson said: 'Trade dispute are rare and the smaller countries ... are not usually equipped to handle such a dispute.  Most disputes are settled diplomatically rather than on the science.'

Behind closed doors

The decision making process for the standards themselves is similarly open to criticism. Within the Codex Alimentarius there are currently 22 active committees working on various aspects of food safety. These meet every one or two years, but obviously work continues in the meantime.

This work includes closed meetings, which NGOs are not allowed to attend. It is here, according to Rob Verkerk, that the true decision making process happens; formal committee meetings, where NGOs have their opportunity to speak, is closer to a ratification process than an opinion-forming debate.

This perspective is supported by Penney Viner, Vice President of the Heath Food Manufacturers Association, who participates in the Codex Alimentarius through the industry body the International Alliance of Dietary/Food Supplement Association (IADSA).

She concedes that the only real way that an NGO can directly influence outcomes at Codex Alimentarius meetings is through influencing national governments, but she points out that industry NGOs may be able to influence outcomes through a different mechanism. 'On the more technical issues where Codex cannot make up its mind it will set up electronic working groups and ... it's not uncommon for such working groups to be industry led,' she says.

This process has led some to conclude that the detailed definition of each food standard is often left in the hands of corporate interests, leaving the governments to debate whether any risk posed to human health is adequately balanced by the promotion of a global food trade. This may or may not be the case, but without the full transparency provided by making all meetings' minutes publically available it is difficult to come to a conclusion one way or the other.

Assault on wholesomeness?

The final accusation - that the Codex Alimentarius seeks to undermine the nutritional value of food - seems on the face of it to be ridiculous. One of the founding principles of the Codex Alimentarius is that it should protect human health and the WTO SPS Agreement's wording makes it clear that human health is of greater consideration that the promotion of internationally agreed trading standards.

In addition, both the Codex Alimentarius standards and the WTO SPS agreement make it clear that a food's "wholesomeness" should always remain intact.

However, the Codex Alimentarius' twin purpose of promoting the international food trade and protecting human health means it always has to balance what may be a risk to human health against the promotion of an international food trade. This means, according to Rob Verkerk, that the Codex Alimentarius cannot take into account the additional nutritional value that may be gained by sourcing fresh food from the farm gate. Nor is there space within it for balancing general sustainability issues (such as food miles) against economic gains.

Because these considerations benefit the global food trade, neither are considered within the Codex Alimentarius standards and, according to the Food Standards Agency, a wholesale rewriting of the Codex Alimentarius' remit would be required in order to change this.

Change is slow

Criticisms of the Codex Alimentarius are nothing new, even among conservative commentators. During a debate entitled "The Future of the Codex Alimentarius" organised earlier this year by the Centre for Economic and Social Aspects of Genomics, Ezzeddine Boutrif, Head of the Food Quality and Standards Service at the FOA, responded to such criticisms, saying: 'there were some very bad things about [the] Codex which were happening a few years ago but we've cleaned up our act now'.

However the Codex Alimentarius does not move as swiftly as this quote suggests. There have been attempts to speed the decision making process up, both by shortening the eight-step process required to adopt a new standard and by introducing two-thirds majority voting in place of consensus voting. However these changes have already been debated for nearly a decade with no firm decision being made, so anything which requires a more radical change in the Codex Alimentarius' remit is likely to remain a long way off.

In the meantime the world moves on and consumers become more and more concerned by what's in the food they eat and why it is considered to be safe or healthy, with anything which doesn't address these concerns increasingly being seen as an obstacle.

For example, a decision was taken recently to allow foods which contain as little as 70 per cent organically produced food to describe themselves as organic. This has little to do with defending the status of organic food or the perceived health benefits it may bring, and everything to do with increasing the trade in food that can be labelled as organic.

To try and reflect consumers' increasingly holistic approach to food, the ANH has recommended that the Codex Alimentarius should move towards a multi-disciplinary approach, where the food trade is considered from the bottom up and the standards are created through a transparent process, one of whose aims is to produce a sustainable result.

The truth be told, there is very little in the Codex Alimentarius' reality which gives credence to the more sensational accusations levelled against it, and most of our diets do indeed rely upon internationally traded food, from lentils and beans to tea bags and cocoa. But while it remains an opaque system that concentrates on the acceptable risk to human health in order to promote trade, many will see it as an increasing threat to nutritious and sustainable food; perhaps rightly so.

Chris Milton is a freelance journalist

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