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.