Although food law is used in a singular term, it is recognized that in many countries more than one law may exist which contains provisions for ensuring safe and quality food production. The situation can be further complicated where laws and regulations may not have been updated or may have constantly been amended, creating a maze of rules which regulators, industry and consumers find it difficult to understand. Countries often face the additional challenge of updating their food laws in line with international agreements such as WTO and Codex standards.
Codex Alimentarius is about safe, good food for everyone – everywhere.
The Codex Alimentarius International Food Standards, guidelines and codes of practice contribute to the safety, quality and fairness of this international food trade. Consumers can trust the safety and quality of the food products they buy and importers can trust that the food they ordered will be in accordance with their specifications.
The Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC) is an intergovernmental body was established by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Health Organization (WHO) in 1962.
CAC develops harmonised food standards that serve as reference for international food trade, guidelines, codes of practice and other recommendations with two major food-related goals:
- To protect the health of the consumers and
- To ensure fair practices in the food trade.
Since its beginnings in 1962, the Codex system has evolved in an open, transparent and inclusive way to meet emerging challenges. Codex’s mission has been to protect the health of consumers and prevent unfair practices, such as deceptive labelling, in the international food trade. While being recommendations for voluntary application by members, Codex standards serve in many cases as a basis for national legislation.
International food trade is a 200 billion dollar a year industry, with billions of tonnes of food produced, marketed and transported. Codex members cover 99% of the world’s population. Being an active member of Codex helps countries to compete in sophisticated world markets – and to improve food safety for their own population. At the same time exporters know what importers demand, and importers are protected from substandard shipments.
Codex standards have become the benchmark against which national food measures and regulations are evaluated within legal parameters of the WHO Agreements. Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS Agreement) and the Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT Agreement) both encourage the international harmonization of food standards.
Some 185 countries are members and over 200 international NGOs and inter-governmental organisations are observers.
The Codex Alimentarius Commission consists of four main organizational elements:
- Codex Commission, is the decision-making body of the Joint FAO/WHO Food Standards Programme, and has become the single most important international reference point for developments associated with food standards. The Commission meets annually.
- Executive Committee is the executive organ of the Commission, responsible for managing the standards development process and for making recommendations about the general direction of the Commission’s work.
- Codex Secretariat consists of the Secretary of the Commission appointed by the Directors-General of FAO and WHO as well as other staff to assist the Secretary.
- Subsidiary Bodies, which prepare and coordinate standards and guidelines. They are the following: General Subject Committees, Commodity Committees, FAO/WHO Coordinating Committees, Ad Hoc Intergovernmental Task Forces.
Government delegations may include members of the private sector, including consumer groups and industry representatives at their discretion. The private sector also may attend meetings as part of a Codex-approved International Non-Governmental Organization (INGO) and may offer comments during committee meetings at the discretion of the Chairman.
Codex Committees include horizontal committees, commodity committees, and regional coordinating committees, all under the direction of the Commission.
Horizontal Committees or those whose mandate covers many commodities, especially the Codex committees on Food Additives and Contaminants, Veterinary Drugs, Food Hygiene, and Pesticide Residues, each meet at least every year owing to an extensive workload. The Codex Committee on Food Labeling also meets yearly, but at times may meet on a less frequent basis depending upon its program of work. A relatively new committee, the Codex Committee on Food Export and Import Control Systems, meets yearly. The Codex Committee on General Principles meets when issues demand its attention, which, in recent years, has been yearly.
Commodity Committees, with a few exceptions, have completed their work and have adjourned sine die. The exceptions are the Codex Committee on Fish and Fish Products and the Codex Committee on Milk and Milk Products, which have continued over time with an expansion of their program of work. Most of the work of the commodity committees has impact on fair practices in food trade rather than on food safety, to be highlighted later.
Regional Coordinating Committees are novel; they offer opportunity for development of commodity standards that may be important regionally and also offer opportunities for members of regions to develop strategies that may benefit them in other Codex committees. Also, for developing countries, the regional meetings provide opportunities to participate and gather information about Codex activities in a local area when attendance at meetings in other regions of the world might be cost prohibitive.
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.
The two parent organizations (FAO & WHO) provide funding for a Secretariat and for organizational support services. FAO is responsible for two thirds of the funding, with WHO responsible for the other one-third of funds for the Codex Commission.
Codex is a government-to-government organization that conducts its business through a network of committees.
Each Codex committee is hosted by an agreed-to-government that is responsible for the operation costs of each committee.
Funding for the Codex Commission itself, and its Executive Committee, is the responsibility of the Secretariat. Under this funding agreement, a very efficient system has been established to effectively control the number of meetings required by a committee, which further prevents Codex committees from continuing into perpetuity (unlike many other organizations in the UN system).
Expert technical work of Codex and its committees is supported by Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committees (JECFA) and specifically established working groups (e.g., the Working Group on Pesticide Residues). There are identified permanent committees as well as others established on an ad hoc basis as needed.