Codex—U.S. and Global Implications

By James J. Gormley
Codex Alimentarius is Latin for “food code” or “food law”. The Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC) is one of the international bodies recognized by both international treaties and the World Trade Organization (WTO) for establishing global food standards.

According to the advocacy organization Public Citizen, recent international trade agreements have caused a radical change in the impact of Codex. The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) of 1994 and other treaties have altered the nature of Codex standards by “designating Codex as the international body” establishing internationally recognized food safety standards for use in trade.

After global trade negotiations in 1994, several international agreements were established, agreements that were intended to blur the lines of distinction among different national regulatory requirements regarding public health and food safety and to eliminate barriers to international trade.

According to the New Zealand Food Safety Authority, “Codex standards are considered scientifically justified and are accepted as international yardsticks,” wrote the New Zealand authority in 2001. WTO member standards that differ from Codex standards may be challenged as trade barriers if they only allow lower levels that serve to restrict trade.

Critics Voice Concerns
According to the Center for International Development at Harvard University: “These measures are criticized by some who claim the agreements are too invasive and deny them sovereignty of domestic regulation. Others assert that the agreements do not go far enough and domestic regulation is often a form of protectionism. Developing countries protest that the standards promoted in the agreements lack their input and are dominated by the interests of developed countries.”

“In the highly contentious debate over genetically modified foods,” wrote the Center, “some non-governmental organizations argue that these agreements” make it hard for countries to make their own decisions as to, for example, simply banning or allowing GMOs for sale in their country.

Others have criticized Codex’ use of the same standards that apply to toxic chemicals and environmental hazards with food and dietary supplements.

Some observers have said that Codex’ application of the precautionary principle—banning something because it might be harmful—is hypocritical: it is applied to dietary supplements, where it is not needed, but it is not applied to toxic additives, where it is needed.

Other issues at stake
Codex is looking at what forms and potencies of vitamins and minerals should be allowed for international trade, allowing individual nations to restrict other forms and potencies. Codex does not currently address other ingredients used in dietary supplements.

Calls for inclusion of DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and ARA (arachidonic acid), and exclusion of partially hydrogenated fats and high fructose corn syrup, in infant formula standards have seemingly fallen on deaf ears, as have many other issues, say some, including concerns about GMOs.

Sustainability is another issue on the Codex horizon that may impact how some U.S. companies operate in terms of ingredient sourcing and also in terms of rising global demand for eco-friendly harvesting and production.

So how does Codex affect me?
Codex can affect you in a few ways:
1. Its guidelines regarding risk assessment have the potential to support low potencies for nutritional ingredients; that impacts what is available on store shelves if the U.S. products have had to be dumbed down based on low potencies allowed in Europe and supported by Codex. Large companies that export rely on economies of scale that will encourage them to formulate for the broader world market with restricted forms and potencies.

2. There is the real risk that the US government may copy some of these foreign and international trade standards as maximum levels for its own citizens, thus restricting our right to buy the full range of currently available dietary supplements.

3. Codex’ foot-dragging on GMOs and unhealthful ingredients (such as trans fats and high fructose corn syrup) will encourage functional food and beverage manufacturers to continue to use these controversial cheap, fattening and sweetening substances.

Gormley Take-Away: While Codex apologists are telling you we have nothing to worry about and “the sky is falling” alarmists are saying that we have everything to worry about, very real concerns and opportunities, such as those outlined above, could get lost in the shuffle. Solution? Stay tuned to what our industry associations are saying about Codex but also stay tuned to what credible consumer health advocacy organizations are saying (such as Citizens for Health). That way, you will have different perspectives that are not always 180 degrees apart and which, together, offer you a balanced view, whether pro, con or wait-and-see.

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