Corporations rule our food rules: WHO/FAO Compromises International Food Standards

codexWho decides on what can be added to our food or what food is considered safe for consumption? Whether in Malaysia, China or Australia, Governments have to follow the Codex Alimentarius, rules set up by the WHO and FAO which are policed by the WTO (World Trade Organisation). This is supposed to facilitate free trade.

But the Codex Alimentarius which is supposed to protect consumers with safe food standards is unduly influenced by corporate interests — to the detriment of the health of consumers around the world.

As a result, our foods are becoming increasingly unsafe.

In Malaysia, many food additives banned in the past were subsequently allowed as a result of WTO’s pressure on the harmonisation of our food standards to follow exactly those in the Codex Alimentarius.

Find out how the Codex is bad for consumers.

The Codex Alimentarius Commission is a cog in the giant machine that controls the global trade of food.

This is made up of multiple supra-national bodies, including Codex’s parents, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). Under their facilitation, Codex has been developing standards, guidelines and recommendations for the trade of food since 1963. These cover a range of issues, such as maximum pesticide residues, food additives and food labelling.

The World Trade Organisation (WTO) governs global trade and ensures that nation states do not commit the terrible crime of going against the current neo-liberal trade system. Described on the Codex website as “fair trade”, this system prevents countries from utilising mechanisms that are interpreted as barriers to trade. Some of these policies, such as taxing imports or subsidising exports, could be used to protect domestic industries or agricultural production, which is not usually permitted by the current system. Other policies are more contentious, and include the labelling of genetically modified food and refusing to allow imports of products not considered safe by the importing country. This is where the Codex recommendations come into play.

Countries in the global South have long had their ability to utilise protective trade policies stripped away by international financial institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. In the industrialised North, however, we are used to dictating terms rather than being dictated to.

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.

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 who wish to have their say in Codex decisions have two possible routes: through national delegations and through non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that have official observer status. A stumbling block on the first option is that national delegations will only take consumer concerns to Brussels if they are in line with their government’s position. NGOs such as Consumers International may present an easier route, but there are restrictions in place that mean that only certain groups qualify for observer status. 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.

Codex Collaboration

Conversely, 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 (ILSI) 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, Nestle, PepsiCo, Unilever, and Tate & Lyle. The ILSI’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 ILSI 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. Its work is “of fundamental importance to the Codex Commission’s deliberations on standards and guidelines for food additives, contaminants and residues of veterinary drugs in foods”.

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 ILSI. The electronic publication was sponsored by the ILSI and is available online on what appears to be a joint JECFA/ILSI website. The initial list of additives was also put together by the ILSI.

Not Independent

The work of Codex Alimentarius is presented as being based on independent, objective science. Collaboration between the ILSI and one of Codex’s most important scientific advisory bodies throws up some serious questions about just how objective this science is. That the ILSI’s members indirectly funded this piece of work points towards an extremely cosy relationship.

In 2007 ILSI India hosted a conference on risk assessment that was attended by key Codex figures. Further collaboration between the ILSI and the FAO is apparent on the ILSI 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 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 based on WHO guidelines were subsequently rejected by the South African Department of Health because they did not include guidance on sugar. In 2003 WHO published research contradicting the 1997 report.

In March 2010 Ethical Consumer attended a conference on Codex hosted by Lancaster University, where Ezzeddine Boutrif of the FAO, whose mandate includes Codex, spoke. He was quizzed by Dr Eric 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 7-10 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.

Source: Ethical Consumer, July/August 2010