Codex Alimentarius is about safe, good food for everyone, everywhere


188 Codex Members gathered for the 39th Session of the Codex Alimentarius Commission (27 June - 1 July 2016) at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Rome, Italy, to adopt new international standards and guidelines.

The Codex Alimentarius or "Food Code" was established by FAO and the World Health Organization (WHO) in 1963. It was a long way from 120 delegates from 30 countries and 16 International Organizations at the first session to the 188 Codex Members - 187 Member Countries and 1 Member Organization (EU); and 238 Codex Observers - 57 IGOs, 165 NGOs, 16 UN until today.

Nowadays, Codex members cover 99% of the world's population. More and more developing countries are taking an active part in the Codex process - in many cases assisted by the Codex Trust Fund, which strives to finance - and train - participants from such countries to enable efficient participation in order to compete in sophisticated world markets; to improve food safety for their own population; to know what importers demand, and importers are protected from substandard shipments.

The Codex Alimentarius system represents a unique opportunity for all countries to join the international community in formulating and harmonizing food standards and ensuring their global implementation, also within the context of the SDGs and the Decade of Action on Nutrition. It also allows them a role in the development of codes governing hygienic processing practices and recommendations relating to compliance with those standards.

“Codex is one of the most unique and successful joint ventures of the entire UN system” said Dry Bruce Awkward, Assistant Director-General of the WHO, during his opening remarks.

The Codex Alimentarius is also pivotal to the international food trade.

International food trade has existed for thousands of years but until not too long ago food was mainly produced, sold and consumed locally. Over the last century the amount of food traded internationally has grown exponentially, and a quantity and variety of food never before possible travels the globe today.

This year’s Session is an opportunity to adopt new international standards on topics including:

  • Guidelines for the control of non-typhoid Salmonella spp. in beef and pork meat
  • Guidelines on the application of general principles of food hygiene to the control of foodborne parasites
  • Nutrient reference values for labelling purposes in the guidelines on nutrition labelling
  • Standards on the safety of food additives, pesticide residues in food, and arsenic levels in rice
  • Revision of Codex’s General Principles of Food Hygiene and its HACCP Annex
  • Future work of the Commission on antimicrobial resistance

As the increasing number of consumers and governments are becoming aware of food quality and safety issues and are more and more demanding legislative actions from their governments, the elaboration of Codex Alimentarius has helped significantly to put food as an entity on political agendas. In fact, governments are extremely conscious of the political consequences to be expected should they fail to heed consumers’ concerns regarding the food they eat.

The Codex Alimentarius Commission has been supported in its work by the now universally accepted maxim that people have the right to expect their food to be safe, of good quality and suitable for consumption. Food-borne illnesses are at best unpleasant – at worst they can be fatal.

But there are other consequences. Outbreaks of food-borne illness can damage trade and

tourism and can lead to loss of earnings, unemployment and litigation.

Poor-quality food can destroy the commercial credibility of suppliers, both nationally and internationally, while food spoilage is wasteful and costly and can adversely affect trade and consumer confidence.

The work of the Codex Alimentarius Commission is continuously evolving.

Creating standards that at once protect consumers, ensure fair practices in the sale of food and facilitate trade is a process that involves specialists in numerous food-related scientific disciplines, together with consumers’ organizations, production and processing industries, food control administrators and traders.

FAO-WHO Call for Action: 2nd Codex Trust Fund

During the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Codex Alimentarius Commission, which took place at FAO Headquarters in Rome, Italy in July 2013, the Directors-General of WHO and FAO agreed that a successor initiative to the Codex Trust Fund should be established to begin operation in 2016.

Building on the success of the FAO/WHO Project and Fund for Enhanced Participation in Codex (Codex Trust Fund) which ran from 2004-2015, FAO and WHO recently launched a follow -up initiative to the Codex Trust Fund for the period 2016-2027.  

The new Codex Trust Fund (CTF2) builds on the experience gained over the past 12 years and takes the next step in supporting developing and transition economy countries to help build their capacity to engage fully and effectively in the Codex Alimentarius Commission where international food safety standards are established.  

CTF2 is designed to provide support for a limited period of time to individual countries or groups of countries to address specific barriers at national level that inhibit full and effective engagement in Codex at national, regional and international levels with a view to helping build and/or strengthen Codex structures at national level in a manner that will be sustainable over time.

The goal of the project is that developing and transition economy countries will be sustainably engaged in Codex.  

FAO Director General, José Graziani da Silva, stressed the importance of the 2nd Codex Trust Fund for a stronger global food safety and food security.

The 2nd Codex Trust Fund is a 12-year project that will run from January 2016-December 2027.

As at January 2016, 103 countries eligible to apply for support to engage fully, effectively and sustainably in the work of the Codex Alimentarius Commission.

Multi-annual support will be provided through individual country or group applications to eligible countries

with successful applications.

Approximately $3.3 million per annum is needed from donors to ensure that all eligible countries can be supported at least once during the 12-year period.

Dr Awkward announced today the list of 4 countries who have successfully passed all the evaluation phases. The selected pilot countries are Ghana, Senegal, Madagascar Kirghizstan.

Links between the Codex Alimentarius and the SDGs

Food safety is a cornerstone of food security that only exists “when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life” (World Food Summit, 1996). Through its work as a food safety standard setter the Codex Alimentarius Commission contributes to Goal 2 End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture and more specifically Target 2.1 2 By 2030, end hunger and ensure access by all people, in particular the poor and people in vulnerable situations, including infants, to safe, nutritious and sufficient food all year round.

Food safety is also central to ensuring healthy lives. It is estimated that 600 million foodborne illnesses and 420,000 deaths derived from 31 major food safety hazards only in 2010 (WHO, 2015). The Codex mandate thus also speaks directly to Goal 3 Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages. As Codex provisions concern the hygienic and nutritional quality of food, including microbiological norms, food additives, pesticide and veterinary drug residues, contaminants, labelling and presentation, and methods of sampling and risk analysis, they contribute in particular to Target 3.9 By 2030, substantially reduce the number of deaths and illnesses from hazardous chemicals and air, water and soil pollution and contamination.

Lastly, Codex food safety provisions, in particular in the area of nutrition and labelling, also relate to Goal 12 Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns. For instance, certain Codex guidelines and codes of practices on food hygiene address the issue of product date labelling which can contribute to SDG Target 12.3 By 2030, halve per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels and reduce food losses along production and supply chains, including post-harvest losses.

To summarize: better food safety means better nutrition, less waste and can potentially lead to more food security. In turn, better nutrition and more efficient food systems pay strong, lifelong dividends for health, productivity, and economic growth.

Challenges and risks

A remaining challenge is to ensure sufficient financial support: on the one hand for developing and transition economy countries to help build their capacity to engage fully and effectively in Codex activities, and the other hand for scientific advice to ensure that Codex continues to be rooted in rigorous scientific methodology. There is also a need for communication with a broader range of observer organizations and other stakeholders who can ensure Codex work is effective and its outputs widely implemented.

A key risk deriving from low participation of countries in Codex standard setting activities, on the one hand, and low engagement with relevant stakeholders (e.g. food industry, NGOs, trade unions, private standard setters) on the other hand, is an ultimate lack of ownership and uptake of Codex standards which are internationally recognized as a benchmark for food safety and quality.

Emerging issues:

From a Codex perspective, a number of emerging issues are likely to affect whether or not all concerned actors in future will be able to benefit from international food safety standards which in turn has an impact on the global level of food security, public health and access to international markets. Some of the issues that will have to be considered in an integrated manner to avoid that anyone is left behind are:

  • Food waste and its effects on malnutrition and food safety: By 2050, the world will have 9 billion people to feed requiring a 60 percent increase in food production on land and in oceans that are already strained. Loss occurs because of poor storage, transportation, pests, lack of available markets and general waste. In developing countries, poorer communities, especially smallholder farmers, often lack access to the technology and energy that is essential to keep food safe. This results in potentially un-safe food being consumed out of necessity.
  • Technological developments in the area of food safety: Food inspection, control and certification systems are likely to become more technological in developed countries which risks then creating an un-level playing field for trade and competitiveness.
  • Competition for attention and resources: In the light of an increasing number of global challenges such as climate change, the protection of ecosystems, sustainable consumption and production it will be more and more difficult to ensure sufficient resources for standardization in food safety.

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