CODEX ALIMENTARIUS. Codex Alimentarius is a small global agency that establishes international standards for substances potentially harmful to human health and the environment—that is, food additives, chemicals, pesticides, and contaminants. Created jointly in 1963 by the World Health Organization (WHO), responsible for food safety and public health, and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), responsible for food production, Codex is located in FAO headquarters in Rome. FAO is the dominant partner, contributes more than twothirds of the cost of the organization, supervises the staff, and generally sets an agenda favorable to concerns of industrial agriculture.
Some 170 developed and developing countries are members of Codex. Their representatives meet as the Codex Commission every two years, alternately in Rome and Geneva, Switzerland (where WHO is headquartered), to review the status of standards being developed in some three dozen Codex committees, and to adopt or return standards recommended by those committees. Each committee is chaired by a nation that agrees to pay the committee's administrative and operational costs, an arrangement that makes a virtue out of the necessity of a small Codex budget. Not surprisingly, all major committees are headed by developed nations, with some countries chairing more than one committee. Codex members may self-select membership in committees, the choices being determined by national interest in specific standard issues and limited by national budgets for travel and staff. All substantive work on standards is done in Codex committees. The commission elects an executive committee and a chairperson every two years to supervise the work of a secretariat staff and to coordinate the work of the committees. Codex operates under consensus rules (that is, votes are rarely taken), a practice that avoids the impression that standards are based on political maneuvering for votes rather than on scientific research. Codex has voted on standards only six times in its forty-year history, and only once prior to 1994. In each of those events, the tally was so close as to lead observers to conclude that no consensus exists on global standards. Codex has a small administrative staff of six people, does no research, and relies instead on the scientific capabilities of its member countries and on the advice of international scientific bodies.
Codex was established to provide a reliable standard-setting process to assist developing countries lacking the infrastructure to create domestic safeguards for food safety and health. Codex standards also offer developing countries the assurance of a floor for health and environmental standards on which to build export markets, primarily to developed countries. A recent study estimated that, on average, each developing country would need to spend $150 million to achieve the internal capability of providing food safety and environmental standards. However, less than a fifth of developing-country members of Codex allocate staff or financial resources to participate regularly in Codex committees or in the development of a strategic Codex plan to accelerate adoption of standards. The Codex Executive Committee proposed a $98 million fund to assist developing countries to comply with the accelerated adoption procedures, with the understanding that developed countries would pay for the fund, which would become available after 2003 if the Codex Commission were to approve the fast-tracking of standards and developed countries contribute the funds.
Until 1994, Codex provided standards that were global floors that countries could apply domestically to protect consumer health and the environment. Countries could set and enforce standards higher than those recommended by Codex. After 1994, with the creation of the World Trade Organization (WTO), Codex standards were transformed into global ceilings limiting the ability of individual nations to employ standards for health and environmental protection that exceed Codex levels. Countries may adopt higher domestic standards than those approved by Codex, but those standards are considered a trade violation when challenged in the WTO, where the measures for trade-rule violations are Codex standards. No country can be forced to drop more precautionary standards, but failure to do so will result in economic penalties being imposed by the WTO. However, neither the WTO nor other global agencies penalize countries that adopt standards less protective than those that Codex provides.
See also Additives ; FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) ; Food Safety ; Food Supply and the Global Food Market ; Food Supply, Food Shortages ; Food Trade Associations ; International Agencies ; Pesticides.
Rodney E. Leonard