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.[1]

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,[14] 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.[2]  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[15]. 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.[16]  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.[17]  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.[18]

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.[19]  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”.[20]

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”.[21]

Maize is one of three staple foods that provide 60% of the world’s food energy intake.[22]  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.[23] 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”.[24]

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.