It sounds like something straight out of a conspiracy theory – the shadowy Codex Alimentarius Commission has been quietly making decisions about the food we eat for decades. With obesity and malnutrition reaching record highs in the UK, Leonie Nimmo asks whose interests they have really been protecting.
The Codex Alimentarius Commission is a cog in the giant machine that controls the global trade of food. This is made up of multiple supra-national bodies, including Codex's parents, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Under their facilitation, Codex has been developing standards, guidelines and recommendations for the trade of food since 1963. These cover a range of issues, such as maximum pesticide residues, food additives and food labelling.
The World Trade Organization (WTO) governs global trade and ensures that nation states do not commit the terrible crime of going against the current neo-liberal trade system. Described on the Codex website as “fair trade” but elsewhere called “free trade”, this system prevents countries from utilising mechanisms that are interpreted as barriers to trade.
Some of these policies, such as taxing imports or subsidising exports, could be used to protect domestic industries or agricultural production. This is not usually permitted by the current system unless you are an extremely wealthy and powerful nation or block of nations such as the United States and Europe.
Other policies are more contentious, and include the labelling of genetically modified food and refusing to allow imports of products not considered safe by the importing country. This is where the Codex recommendations come into play. Trade disputes of the kind played out by Europe and North America would leave most countries bankrupt, and so are simply not an option. If a country wanted to implement legislation different to the standards, guidelines and recommendations produced by Codex, it would risk initiating such as dispute.
Countries in the global South have long had their ability to utilise protective trade policies stripped away by international financial institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. In the industrialised North, however, we are used to dictating terms rather than being dictated to.
THE INTERNATIONAL FOOD CODE OF CODEX ALIMENTARIUS
By Robert Verkerk PhD, executive and scientific director of the Alliance for Natural Health International (www.anhinternational.org)
Processed foods full of additives and out-of-season, cosmetically perfect fruit and veg that taste of surprisingly little are now commonplace in European supermarkets. Over 85% of the compound animal feed used to raise European farm animals are now genetically modified (GM). This is a far cry from the days of getting most of your fruit and veg from the local farmers’ market or the local greengrocer.
The trend towards globalisation has caused massive changes in so many areas of our lives, among the most profound being the origin, nature and quality of the food we eat daily.
The Codex Alimentarius Commission is heavily influenced by some of the most powerful industries on the planet, including the food, agricultural, biotech and pharmaceutical industries. Codex’s stated purpose is to ensure that global trade is facilitated and trade barriers are removed, while also ensuring that consumers are adequately protected.
It is therefore no great surprise that Codex has seen fit to ‘green light’ many GM foods, food additives, pesticide residues, synthetic hormones and other intrinsically unhealthy food components. It also has substantially dumbed down organic standards, making them more accessible to large agricultural players. Consumer interests are often seemingly low on Codex’s list of priorities.
The guidelines, standards and recommendations produced by Codex are not actually laws. They do however provide a template for laws and are regarded by the World Trade Organization (WTO), which effectively acts as the arbitrator in any global trade dispute, as the internationally agreed benchmark.
The WTO’s status as Codex’s ‘policeman’ has been asserted with the 10-year long dispute between the USA and Canada, on one hand, and the EU on the other, over synthetic hormones in US and Canadian beef that the EU refused to accept on the basis of health concerns. For the privilege, the EU had to fork out around US$130 million annually. It’s easy to see how smaller countries would simply be unable to resist pressure from the all-powerful minority.
If you want to find out more about Codex, as well as to get involved in the campaign to influence and raise awareness about Codex, go to www.anh-europe.org.
Codex and Consumers
The potential for Codex recommendations to conflict with national laws, at least in Europe, is to some extent limited, because the national delegations that make up the Codex Commission are also key players in shaping national legislation. In the case of the UK this is the Food Standards Agency. If these delegations agree to Codex recommendations, which are decided by consensus, they are unlikely to go against them at a later date. Where an issue is contentious, Codex negotiations can wrangle on for years, and issues that cannot be agreed upon are eventually thrown out.
In 2003 the Codex rules were changed to allow the European Community to join as a bloc. The European position on Codex-related issues is therefore shaped in Brussels prior to Codex meetings, and a large part of food law across Europe is already harmonised under the single market.
Consumers that wish to have their say in Codex decisions have two possible routes: through non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that have official observer status or through national delegations. Consumers International is one such NGO. But there are restrictions in place that mean that only certain groups qualify for observer status. One of the requirements is that they are international in scope, so your local local food group would not qualify!
A stumbling block on the second option is that national delegations will only take consumer concerns to Brussels if they are in line with their government's position. As this article was going to print in June 2010, the second person in eight days resigned from the UK’s Food Standards Agency's (FSA) steering group on public consultation about genetically modified (GM) food, amid allegations that the FSA is biased towards GM food and unduly influenced by GM companies. This does not suggest, therefore, an organisation that can assumed to take the public's concerns as a priority.
Although the Codex Commission's stated purpose is to protect consumers from dangerous foods, it has no actual requirement to listen directly to what consumers want – the onus is on consumers to make themselves heard. This situation is compounded by the obscure nature of the organisation, which few people have heard of, fewer still understand and whose very name (which is Latin for Food Code) is a beacon for conspiracy theorists.
The GM battleground
Codex is one forum in which the genetically modified (GM) food battle is being played out, between the United States, Canada and Argentina on the one hand, and Europe on the other. Europeans have been resolute in their opposition to GM foods, despite a more recent softening of the stance of governments and trade bodies.
The WTO has already been embroiled in GM-related disputes. Codex has not approved individual GM crops, rather it has provided a framework for the risk analysis of foods derived from GM crops, produced from genetically modified micro-organisms and derived from animals with genetically modified, or ‘recombinant,’ DNA. Codex is currently more concerned with the issue of the labelling of GM foods.
Currently in Europe, food containing more than 0.9% GM ingredients must be labelled as such. Canada and the USA are challenging this in the Codex Committee on Food Labelling, which is hosted by Canada. The host countries of Codex Committees, which also chair the meetings, have a disproportionate influence over the proceedings. They select the Chair, who is privy to more information than the rest of the Committee, such as declarations of conflicts of interests and relevant documents submitted by external organisations. How this is shared with the rest of the Committee is at the Chair’s discretion. They are also responsible for guiding the meeting towards a consensus.
The Canadian government department which engages with Codex is Health Canada, a body that has come under fire for its lax approach to testing the safety of GM crops. It was at the centre of a scandal in 1999 involving Codex's Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA). The Observer newspaper uncovered that a scientist on the JECFA panel representing Canada had been “suggested” by Monsanto and was in fact a registered Monsanto lobbyist.
The Canadian Senate Agriculture Committee also learned that files relating to JECFA's safety analysis of Monsanto's controversial bovine growth hormone BST had been “stolen at Health Canada”, and that government scientists that had expressed doubts over Monsanto's safety tests of the hormone had been “muzzled after they began to talk publicly about the drug review”.
Food safety vs food security
With the establishment of a Codex biotech task force in 2000, the FAO published a statement on biotechnology that presents its position. This states that the organisation is aware of the potential risks associated with biotechnology, including the “displacement of traditional cultivars by a small number of genetically modified cultivars”.
Maize is one of three staple foods that provide 60% of the world's food energy intake. It originates in Mexico, where there are multiple varieties of the plant in all sorts of shapes, colours and sizes. This genetic diversity and integrity is crucial for future production of the grain, and also the ability of humankind to adapt agricultural practices to the changing conditions bought on by climate change. But it is being undermined, and could potentially be wiped out, by genetically engineered varieties. How is it possible to calculate the risks for future generations of this worst case scenario happening?
In March 2010 Ethical Consumer attended a conference on Codex hosted by Lancaster University. There we asked Ezzeddine Boutrif of the FAO, whose mandate includes Codex, what was being done to ensure that seed integrity is preserved. The response was an explanation regarding the process by which individual genetically engineered crops should be assessed for safety. In other words, the answer was nothing.
With its huge scope and influence, there is one thing that Codex Alimentarius does not do, and that is look at the bigger picture. It does not begin to address the issue of how we will ensure that present and future generations are able to eat within the limits of the planet's resources. Food safety and food security, in this context, are worlds apart.
A report completed in 2008 following four years of research, carried out by over 400 world experts in agriculture, found that many of the risks associated with modern biotechnology are “as yet unknown”. It also specifically highlighted the problems relating to the proprietary nature of biotech products, and the potential for patented GM crops to “undermine local practices that enhance food security and economic sustainability”.
To the best of our knowledge, the supra-national bodies that shape the global food system, some of which commissioned and sponsored this research, have not incorporated these findings into their work.
The natural health battleground
The internet is swimming with stories that Codex is ushering in a new set of rules that will restrict our access to food supplements such as vitamins and minerals. As of yet, this isn't the case – the legislation is being drawn up by the European Union (EU), after which it will be used as a model on which Codex regime will be based.
Under the legislation, the EU Food Supplements Directive, three key things are likely to be massively restricted: the allowed ingredients; the maximum permitted doses, and what can be said about the beneficial properties of substances. Whilst this has implications for food supplements, elsewhere European legislation looks set to heavily restrict access to Ayurvedic and Chinese natural medicines.
The process by which a substance can be added to the approved list is expensive, consequently we are likely to lose access to a large number of important food supplements. A similar licensing system for natural health products was introduced in Canada in 2004; it is estimated that 20,000 products have since disappeared from shelves.
One of the planned implementation dates for the Supplements Directive was due to be December 2009, but opposition has caused delays. To get involved, see the 'Natural Health' campaigns page of the Alliance for Natural Health's website.
Codex and Corporate Collaboration
The Codex Commission stands accused of being unduly influenced by corporate interests, represented by trade bodies with observer status. A peek behind the scenes indicates that this does deserve further scrutiny.
The International Life Sciences Institute (ISLI) is one such organisation. Its members, which are solely companies, include the Big Daddies of biotech, biofuels, and pharma: Cargill, Monsanto, Bayer, Dow Chemical, Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline. Food manufacturers include Mars, Kraft, Coca-Cola, McDonalds, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Unilever, and Tate & Lyle.
The ISLI's 2009 Annual Report states that 68% of its revenue for that year came from its members. Only 5% of this went to research, whilst a total of 81% was spent on General & Administrative, Meetings and Other Programme Expenses. Yet it has vigorously denied being a lobby group.
The ISLI has worked closely with the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA). This is, ostensibly, a scientific advisory body feeding “independent scientific expert advice” to the Codex Commission. According to the WHO, “Codex standards are based on scientific advice as provided by JECFA”.
In 2006 a summary of the evaluations on food additives that had been made by JECFA since 1956 was published by none other than the ISLI. The electronic publication was sponsored by the ISLI and is available online on what appears to be a joint JECFA/ISLI website. The initial list of additives was also put together by the ISLI.
The work of Codex Alimentarius is presented as being based on independent, objective science. Collaboration between the ISLI and one of Codex's most important scientific advisory bodies throws up some serious questions about just how objective this science is. That the ISLI's members indirectly funded this piece of work points towards an extremely cosy relationship.
In 2007 ISLI India hosted a conference on risk assessment that was attended by key Codex figures. Further collaboration between the ISLI and the FAO is apparent on the ISLI India website, notably a conference on “Next Generation Technologies for Healthy Foods”, in which they were in “technical collaboration”.
In 1997 a joint WHO/FAO report amazingly concluded that the use of high carbohydrate foods (which include foods high in sugar) could reduce the risk of obesity in the long term. Dietary guidelines which were developed for South Africa “according to” WHO dietary guidelines were subsequently rejected by the South African Department of Health because they did not include guidance on sugar. In 2003 the WHO published research contradicting the 1997 report.
At the Lancaster University Codex conference in March 2010, Ezzeddine Boutrif was quizzed by Dr. Erik Millstone, Professor of Science and Technology Policy at the University of Sussex, about alleged systematic bias of Codex towards corporate interests. Boutrif acknowledged that there had been problems in the past but said that things had changed “dramatically” in the past 7 to 10 years.
Some of the food additives on Codex's approved list are highly controversial, such as the sweetener aspartame, which campaigners have been trying to have banned for years. It was approved by JECFA in 1981 and the Commission has not subsequently reassessed this additive. If it is generally accepted (amongst those in the know) that in the past the integrity of the panel of experts' research was allegedly compromised, it is surprising that the standards, guidelines and recommendations they helped to develop still stand.
Boutrif also acknowledged that Codex Alimentarius was not orientated to the public and that more could be done to address this. Perhaps we can anticipate a time that Codex will come out of the shadows, and make more of an effort to communicate with the people it claims to protect: consumers.