The Codex Alimentarius Commission (Codex) is a United Nations food standards setting body working under the auspices of the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization (WHO). The official mission of Codex is to protect consumers’ health and ensure fair practices in the food trade. Codex standards are relied upon by exporters to set a level competitive playing field. Many countries incorporate Codex standards into their national laws and Codex standards often serve as specifications within the international food trade. Codex standards, ranging from labeling requirements to lists of approved food additives, significantly affect the ability of food manufacturers to export their products around the world.
Since 1994, Codex food safety standards have also played an express role in settling trade disputes over unjustified trade barriers disguised as national food regulatory requirements. Under the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) Agreement on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures, nations that wish to apply stricter requirements than those set by Codex must justify those measures scientifically. Not surprisingly, trade disputes have long been intertwined with the Codex standard-setting process.
In response to such controversies, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue late last year moved the U.S. Codex Office from USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) to the Office of the Undersecretary for Trade and Agricultural Affairs led by Ted McKinney. Food companies and industry trade associations have overwhelmingly supported the decision.
Secretary Perdue announced the creation of the Undersecretary for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs position while reviewing options for improving coordination on trade and international activities. As part of that process, Secretary Perdue determined that the U.S. Codex Office should be moved from FSIS to the new trade mission area. While the U.S. Codex Office mission remains the same, the move is significant.
Food companies and trade associations should take a new look at the agendas of key Codex Committees, http://www.fao.org/fao-who-codexalimentarius/committees/en/ to examine whether the U.S. government positions on specific points can be strengthened. A full list of all active Codex Committees can be found here, http://www.fao.org/fao-who-codexalimentarius/committees/en/. Each Codex committee is considering agenda items that will have an impact on U.S. exports.
Some draft Codex standards now under development are inconsistent with U.S. laws and regulations. For example, the agenda of the Codex Committee on Nutrition and Foods for Special Dietary Uses (which includes dietary supplements), http://www.fao.org/fao-who-codexalimentarius/committees/committee/en/?committee=CCNFSDU, has been particularly controversial in recent years, with the nitrogen to protein conversion factor issue pitting dairy interests against vegetable protein interests and the US against the EU in the areas of infant formula and other special dietary food standards. The agenda for the November 2017 meeting can be found at http://www.fao.org/fao-who-codexalimentarius/sh-proxy/en/?lnk=1&url=https%253A%252F%252Fworkspace.fao.org%252Fsites%252Fcodex%252FMeetings%252FCX-720-39%252Fnf39_01_rev1e.pdf.
Food manufacturers may also wish to keep a special eye on the Codex Committee on Food Labeling, http://www.fao.org/fao-who-codexalimentarius/committees/committee/en/?committee=CCFL. Canada, which hosts and chairs the Committee on Food Labeling, http://www.fao.org/fao-who-codexalimentarius/committees/committee/en/?committee=CCFL, is formally proposing its own national regulations for front-of-pack nutrition rating symbols, https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/programs/consultation-front-of-package-nutrition-labelling-cgi/summary-of-proposed-amendments.html. The issue has already been placed on the agenda for the Codex Committee on Food Labeling, http://www.fao.org/fao-who-codexalimentarius/sh-proxy/en/?lnk=1&url=https%253A%252F%252Fworkspace.fao.org%252Fsites%252Fcodex%252FMeetings%252FCX-714-44%252FWD%252Ffl44_01e.pdf. In contrast to Canada, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) supports a voluntary front-of-pack nutrition-labeling program developed by the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute.
The U.S. Codex Office regularly announces public meetings, held in the Washington, D.C. area, to formulate the position that the U.S. government will take at Codex meetings held in the U.S. and overseas. Companies and trade associations have an opportunity to express their views to USDA, FDA, Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, and other relevant U.S. government agencies. https://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/international-affairs/us-codex-alimentarius/public-meetings. Participants can offer comments in written or oral form and speak directly with leading U.S. government officials that will attend official Codex meetings.
For example, on March 15, 2018, a U.S. government preparation session for the forthcoming meeting of the Codex Committee on Pesticide Residues was held in the Washington metro area, https://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/international-affairs/us-codex-alimentarius/committees-and-task-forces/general-subject-committees/codex-committee-on-pesticide-residues/ct_index.
Other open meetings of the U.S. government delegation to Codex committee meetings will follow later this year. In addition to the Codex Committee on Nutrition and Foods for Special Dietary Use, and the Codex Committee on Food Labeling, key Codex committees include the Codex Committee on Food Additives http://www.fao.org/fao-who-codexalimentarius/committees/committee/en/?committee=CCFA, with over 400 food additives being considered for inclusion or deletion including those for fish, chocolate, wine, a number of dairy products. Also anticipated is an initial resolution of a stalemate between the EU block and the US and its allies on a significant number of colors and sweeteners, stalled from adoption for almost 6 years. The November 2017 report of the Codex Committee on Food Hygiene can be found at http://www.fao.org/fao-who-codexalimentarius/sh-proxy/en/?lnk=1&url=https%253A%252F%252Fworkspace.fao.org%252Fsites%252Fcodex%252FMeetings%252FCX-712-49%252FReport%252FREP18_FHe.pdf, with significant rewrites of a number of Codex Hygiene documents including the HACCP Appendix for the Codex General Principles for Food Hygiene. The upcoming agenda for the Codex Committee on Contaminants in Foods and be found at http://www.fao.org/fao-who-codexalimentarius/sh-proxy/en/?lnk=1&url=https%253A%252F%252Fworkspace.fao.org%252Fsites%252Fcodex%252FMeetings%252FCX-735-12%252FINV-PA%252Fcf12_01e.pdf, with lead levels and dioxins in foods, among a number of important topics to be discussed.
The relocation of the U.S. Codex Office within USDA to the new office for the Undersecretary for Trade and Agricultural Affairs should strengthen the new Administration’s commitment to international trade by providing a broader platform and US presence within the Codex “world” in order that global food standards are supportive and do not hinder US food exports, as they have sometimes done in the past. It’s housing within Trade and Agricultural Affairs should enhance ongoing dialogue and understanding about food regulatory matters domestically and worldwide. US-based food companies and their supporting trade associations should take advantage of this new opportunity and become more active in those Codex issues impacting their food sector by becoming strong Codex advocates and make their views known.