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The Codex Alimentarius Commission, Latin for 'food code', is an inter-governmental body that sets guidelines and standards to ensure ‘fair trade practices’ and consumer protection in relation to the global trade of food. It was established for this purpose in 1963 so has more than 40 years’ experience controlling food in an ever-more globalized world. It has over 170 member countries within the framework of the Joint FAO/WHO Food Standards Programme established by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO).
Its primary stated purpose is “protecting the health of consumers and ensuring fair practices in the food trade.” The Commission also promotes coordination of all food standards work undertaken by international governmental and non-governmental organizations (INGO’s).
The guidelines and standards are used as a benchmark for regional/national legislation and in World Trade Orgaization (WTO) diputes. Work is conducted through nearly 30 committees, each dealing with specific areas of food, and decisions are based on consensus voting by member countries. INGO’s do not have voting rights, but may influence proceedings. Most INGO’s present at Codex meetings represent transnational corporation interests.
Watch Kevin Miller's 2005 movie about Codex: "We Become Silent", narrated by Dame Judy Dench and Featuring Mel Gibson.
"If people let government decide what foods they eat and what medicines they take, their bodies will soon be in as sorry a state as are the souls of those who live under tyranny." Thomas Jefferson (1762-1821), Third President of the USA, author of the Declaration of Independence.
- To view the official Codex video click here
The Codex Alimentarius Commission is responsible for establishing a system of guidelines, standards and recommendations that guides the direction of the global food supply. It aims to tell us what is safe, but in the process often uses criteria that are manipulated to support the interests of the world’s largest corporations.
Admirable, some might say, but of course, just how are governments in Codex protecting health, based on what criteria and — what exactly is meant by ‘fair trade practices’?
Well, it’s certainly got nothing to do with the fair trade movement that aims to support farmers and producers in developing countries while promoting sustainability. It’s much more about a system of guidelines and standards that work to the advantage of the largest global food suppliers and producers. In such company, inevitably, small producers and suppliers get left out in the cold -- as do small governments that disagree with the thrust of some of the decisions made under the Codex banner.
Codex Alimentarius, certainly in alternative circles, is often claimed to be the single greatest threat to our continued access to natural health products and wholesome foods. Robert Verkerk, of the Alliance for Natural Health, challenges some of the misconceptions and explains both what Codex is really about and what else we should be concerned about.
There was a rumour circulating that Codex was going to come into force on December 31st 2009. This rumour was incorrect. This date actually represented one of many implementation dates of the European Food Supplements Directive and was nothing directly to do with Codex.
The text for the Codex Guideline on Vitamin and Mineral Food Supplements, which has been based closely on the EU Directive—sharing some of its text verbatim—was ratified in July 2005 but is unlikely to finalised until around 2012 or 2013. It is only at this time it is likely to be used as the basis for national and regional laws in many parts of the world. To a large extent, Codex guidelines on food supplements are irrelevant to Europeans as they simply reflect the European laws on which they are based and it is the laws that ultimately affect our access to products, not the Codex guideline.
Some of the misinformation on Codex appears to be deliberately disseminated, while other parts are unwitting reproductions of the misinformation by concerned yet naive individuals. Among the common erroneous facts are:
These are big claims indeed. They are also deeply worrying for anyone who cares about managing his or her health naturally, be it by consuming copious quantities of wholesome, organic whole foods or taking lashings of supplementary vitamins, minerals and herbs — or both. The problem is that these claims are not all true. Some are actually quite far off the mark, yet most contain elements of truth.
Codex is comprised of over 40 committees, task forces and expert groups which deal with nearly every facet of food production. Codex’s remit covers almost all areas of the food supply, ranging from cereals, cocoa, dairy, meat, meat hygiene, sugars and fresh fruit and vegetables to more controversial issues such as food labelling, food additives, contaminants in food, pesticide residues and genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Committee meetings are hosted by particular national governments and held either in the host country or another part of the world. For example, the host government for the Codex Committee on Food Labelling (CCFL) is Canada, whilst that for the Codex Committee on Nutrition and Foods for Special Dietary Uses (CCNFSDU), which deals, among other things, with food supplements, infant and formulae, is Germany.
29th Session of the Codex Committee on Nutrition and Foods for Special Dietary Uses (CCNFSDU) 2007, Germany
All Codex country members are permitted to attend each annual meeting or ‘session’ and the meeting is facilitated and closely managed by the Committee’s chair and secretariat that sits at the top table facing the delegates.
Behind the country delegates, which typically comprise between three and five members, are the international, non-governmental organisations (INGOs). Depending on the meeting, these might include large consumer groups such as Consumers International, but they tend to be dominated by industry interests. That tends to mean the various international associations representing the food, pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries.
Decision-making in committee meetings is by so-called consensus among governments. INGOs are not allowed to vote, but they can certainly interject during meetings and therefore have the potential to influence decisions.
Codex Alimentarius does not represent any law. It is however, the guidelines, standards and recommendations instigated by the inter-governmental organisation of Codex that has such broad ramifications on how the global food trade and food safety considerations are managed.
Government delegations that sit in the committees and task forces of Codex are not democratically elected representatives; they are bureaucrats. One of the over-riding changes we have witnessed in recent years is the increasing influence of bureaucrats in rule making, for example, even the USA, which prides itself as a true democracy, has seen massive growth in the influence of federal agencies as compared with democratically elected Congress. Jonathan Emord, in his book The Rise of Tyranny, estimates that as much as 75% of all laws in the USA are now created by agencies, completely bypassing the democratic process.
While the bureaucrats in the country delegations of Codex are theoretically responsive to concerns of stakeholders and members of the public, often engaging with them via consultations, the practical reality is that the primary steer comes from major cooperations. Small businesses and individuals may even make representations in consultations to governments, but by and large their views are ignored. Decision-making at Codex occurs by consensus, each country carrying a single vote. This process is complicated by the fact that countries may assemble as trading blocks, given changes to Codex procedural rules in 2003. The European Union now acts as a trading block where a single unelected European Commission official typically represents Government representatives of the EU’s 27 Member States, alongside those Member States present .
Government delegations and the committee secretariat may be influenced by international non-governmental organisations (INGO’s) who participate in the Codex process where official observer status has been granted. While INGO’s purportedly reflect all interest relevant to a given committees activities (e.g. GMO’s, food additives, pesticide residues, food hygiene, etc.), the reality is that INGO influence is disproportionately in favour of trade associations representing the largest trans-national cooperations in the food sector. While excited debates during the course of Codex meetings may often occur between various INGO’s, governments and the Secretariat, it seems much of this is for show as a demonstration of Codex’s consensus process. The reality is somewhat more stark; in most situations, the primary decisions have already been made prior to the meeting and INGO’s voicing a contrary opinion will effectively find that its views have little or no traction.
Another interesting observation that can be drawn from Codex meetings is the extent of the influence of certain country delegations, and the lack of influence of others. For example, the case for the Codex Committee on Nutrition and Foods for Special Dietary Uses (CCNFSDU) appears to be disproportionately influenced by the US, EU and Canadian government delegations with the German-controlled Secretariat chaired by Dr Rolf Grossklaus exerting the primary influence. In these meetings, it is clear that these Government delegations have conferred deeply during the months preceding the annual CCNFSDU meeting, aided by particular trade associations in order to resolve decisions in their respective favours.
There is no doubt that Codex develops the prime system of guidance for the global food supply. Whether we’re looking at the amounts of pesticide residues or particular micro-organisms that are considered safe, the amount of gluten allowed in gluten-free foods, transport and storage systems for fresh fruit and vegetables or the safety of food additives or genetically modified (GM) crops, the particular Codex guideline or standard related to the issue is viewed as the key benchmark for international trade.
One of the trends we see, given the disproportionate influence of very large corporate concerns, is that GM foods, contaminants, additives, pesticide residues and other synthetic chemicals that many of us regard as intrinsically harmful, are pushed for all they’re worth, being deemed safe at those concentrations typically used in processed foods. On the other hand, those things we consider intrinsically beneficial, such as vitamins and minerals, are given a very tough ride. If that weren’t enough, Codex standards for healthy food production systems such as organic production systems, are being increasingly degraded in order to suit the needs and interests of the transnational corporations which are the key beneficiaries of the global food trade.
Looking through the diverse range of issues covered by Codex, it’s possible to tease out some of the issues of greatest concern to natural health.
Genetically modified (GM) food
Because many of the issues take years to reach resolution, needing to work their way through the long-drawn-out, iterative, eight-step consensus-based decision-making process detailed in the Codex Procedural Manual, sharp time lines are rarely known until an issue in the very late stages of consideration. Moreover, the impact of any standard or guideline is not immediate, as its impact is normally only really noticed by consumers or producers once national laws have been harmonised with Codex.
But when citizens express their concerns about Codex to their governments, the common response is along the lines of: “Don’t worry, Codex is a voluntary system of guidelines and standards that is not mandatory. Codex doesn’t represent the law.” The US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has made its views on this clear for several years, particularly given that most American concerns about Codex have centred around its impact on the US’s fertile, dietary supplements industry.
While the FDA attempts to downgrade the significance of Codex in the creation of laws on foods and related substances, such as dietary (food) supplements, the FDA is somewhat economical with the truth. It rightly pinpoints Article 3 of the Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) Agreement of the World Trade Organization (WTO) as being of significance, but in my view, wrongly dismisses its crucial relevance.
Dr Rolf Grossklaus, Chair of the Codex Committee on Nutrition and Foods for Special Dietary Uses (CCNFSDU)
Mexico, where the laws have historically been lax enough to allow a thriving natural and integrated cancer treatment industry to flourish, is now being forced to clamp down on its own laws. The Trilateral Co-operation Charter, signed by the USA, Canada and Mexico, is increasingly becoming the mechanism to tighten the screws in all three countries.
If the North American Free Trade Agreement proceeds, this will likely ensure that policies affecting natural health (including GM, food additives, pesticide residues and all the other things that Codex deals with) will be aligned to the existing European system. It's almost certainly why we see a transition away from Europe's traditional anti-GM stance towards a pro-GM stance—massively opposed by the European public—because that's the way the US and Canada want it to be.
Once these various trading blocs are aligned, smaller nations will be forced increasingly to dance to the tune of Codex.
We’ve established so far that the Codex Alimentarius Commission is the prevailing mechanism that dictates the rules governing the global trade of food. We’ve also established that the WTO is the ‘policeman’ that ensures these rules are abided by. The question we need to ask ourselves is whether these rules are good for us, the people, and whether they are good for the environment. The ANH position is that the development of the global food trade in the last 30 years is neither good for our health, nor is it good for the environment.
The system has few winners — the main ones being the transnational corporations being directly involved in the global production and trade of food and the pharmaceutical industry that profits from the increasing chronic disease burden that results.
One of the key characteristics of the contemporary global food trade is its simplicity and lack of diversity. The nutritional content and quality of foods is a low priority. Food hygiene as a means of controlling pathogens that cause food borne illness (a very real and persistent threat to health) is a key priority but methods for managing such pathogens, such as the use of irradiation or large quantities of preservatives, deplete the integrity and quality of the food. The increasing use of GMO’s, which are endorsed by Codex, is a huge problem both in terms of the effects on human health, and the environment.
We uphold that the increasing control of our food supply by a small number of governments and an even smaller number of corporations is counter to the needs and requirements of the majority of the population of the world. A considerable and growing body of work points to the fact that environmental and health sustainability requires the efficient functioning of local and community based food production and healthcare systems that are optimally adapted to the local requirements. Such systems demand increasing decentralisation rather than increasing centralisation. They demand community and individual engagement rather than community and individual disempowerment.
When the UN looked to 400 scientists from 60 countries to offer views on viable approaches to solving the challenge of food security and world hunger as part of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASDT) project, the general thrust argued against biotechnology as a solution. In fact, the report stressed that making subsistence farmers dependent on GM seeds produced by just a handful of companies was completely counter to the food security requirements of these farmers. It stressed that sustainable and community based farming were central to a solution and of course Codex Alimentarius currently works in a completely opposite direction.
While countries like the USA are vocalising that they have no intention of harmonising their national laws with Codex guidelines, they admit they will have to comply for exports in order to avoid falling foul of the global trade policeman, the WTO. But these claims are both deceptive and hollow; they fail to take on board the full implications of the double-edged sword that is Codex, dealing on one hand with the facilitation of global trade and, on the other, the restriction of trade, supposedly on the basis of consumer safety.
As we’ve seen, the whole purpose of Codex Alimentarius is to instigate a system of guidelines to which countries can adapt their laws to facilitate so-called fair trading practices in relation to food. That means removing barriers to trade. And since the WTO arbitrates on such matters, let’s examine the WTO’s SPS Agreement.
The Agreement, under Article 3, specifically requires that countries harmonise their sanitary and phytosanitary measures with international guidelines, standards or recommendations. This article specifically uses the verb shall rather than should. The Agreement clearly states that for matters concerning food safety, those guidelines, standards or recommendations established by the Codex Alimentarius Commission are the ones relevant for harmonisation. Since the Agreement quite centrally deals with the issue of consumer protection, it follows that countries are mandated to harmonise their national laws to Codex. In actual fact, countries can be even more restrictive than Codex, under the terms of Article 3, although such restriction needs to be scientifically justified.
Should there be a dispute over the effect of a country’s laws restricting trade or not adequately protecting consumers, the WTO Dispute Settlement Body (WTODSB) can be summoned to arbitrate. This of course is something that powerful nations can entertain, while for smaller, developing countries, dependent on food trade, getting sucked into a trade dispute is likely only to end in tears.
A good example of the consequences of a trade dispute managed through the WTODSB is the long-running case of the EU ban on imports of beef treated with artificial growth hormones in the US and Canada. The dispute costs the EU over $116 million annually in sanctions paid to the US, with another $11m paid to Canada, and has now run for over 10 years with still no resolution in sight.
Compliance is the only real option unless your pockets are as deep as those of a powerful trading bloc, such as the EU.
29th Session of the Codex Committee on Nutrition and Foods for Special Dietary Uses (CCNFSDU), Bad Neuenahr, Germany, November 2007
Given that Codex does not create laws but merely delivers guidelines, standards and recommendations, its outputs are characterised as innocuous by many governments and corporations that benefit from them. The reality is that most countries find they have no option but to harmonise their laws to Codex as they are unable to face the sanctions imposed on them by the WTODSB, the ultimate enforcer of Codex’s rules governing the global food trade.
When it comes to us either being poisoned by pollutants or chemicals in our food, or having our fundamental rights and freedoms restricted by losing access to wholesome, natural foods and nutrients, it is of course not Codex itself that provides the legal instrument that impacts us; it is the national and regional laws of countries. This distancing of Codex from the law seems to allow Codex to escape direct culpability—but of course also makes its operation so insiduous.
As the global food trade continues to expand and regional and local food production comes under increasing pressure from the biggest agricultural and food producers in the world, Codex continues its work. In some cases, Codex guidelines and standards are built on existing legal templates, such as in the case of the Codex Guideline on Vitamin and Mineral Food Supplements, which is modelled closely on the EU Food Supplements Directive. Codex then allows this model to be exported internationally. In other cases, such as with GM foods, where the US legal model — which presumes GM foods are substantially equivalent to conventional foods and therefore intrinsically safe — is increasingly acting as the international model relevant to biotechnology products.
Although we can all engage with our governments to try to show them the short-sightedness of so much that they engage with within the committee rooms of Codex, probably our most powerful weapon is our ability to choose what we eat. While many of us are still able to exercise freedom of choice, one of the most effective actions we can take is to be selective in our choice of foods.
We should, for example, support those food production systems that contribute positively to our health, while rejecting those that don’t. We also have to ensure those around us — and especially our children — understand the importance of consumer power. Combine this with targeted lobbying of governments and elected representatives and we could see fundamental change to our food supply, a change that has the ability to facilitate our return to the foods to which our genes have adapted over millennia.
Ironically, when it comes to Codex assessments of the safety of nutrients, they do take into account the nutrients consumed in the diet and substract these from the lowest amounts they consider safe using multiple safety factors and selective, worse-case scientific data. The end result? Codex-compliant food supplements containing diddly squat of life-saving micronutrients.
Dr Bruce Ames, Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, University of California, Berkeley, and a Senior Scientist at Children's Hospital Oakland Research Institute (CHORI), is one of many scientists who have long argued, on the basis of ample scientific evidence, that micronutrient deficiencies, associated with modern western diets, are one of the most important factors in the epidemic of chronic diseases. These diseases include the ‘Big 5’: heart disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity and osteoporosis, which now contribute to the greatest burden on our healthcare systems. Codex, and regulatory regimes based on it, undoubtedly present one of the greatest threats to any healthcare system which seeks to deal with the fundamental causes of disease by addressing micronutrient intakes.
Are you willing to let governments and corporations control what you put into your body? Or will you play your part in helping to reverse the trend towards the global control of our food supply and the dumbing down of natural medicines based on faulty, manipulated science. Thomas Jefferson’s words must be allowed to ring loudly in our heads as we effect these changes that are urgently needed to prevent any further distancing between humans and our natural heritage. We must protect not only our lifeblood but that of future generations.
The short answer is that it’s extremely difficult to influence Codex. It's even harder if you're in Europe, as European Member States don't just act individually, they are also 'spoken for' by the European Commission which acts on behalf of the EU trading bloc. So even if you get the ear of the bureaucrats within your Member State delegation, this delegation is just one of 27 in the EU that is largely represented by a single European Commission bureaucrat. This is one of the reasons that it’s so important for concerned individuals in the EU to have an aligned view on what the problems are so that maximum influence in relation to the same key issues can be applied both to Member States Governments and the European Commission.
We would go one step further and argue that the difficulty in influencing Codex is likely to be the result of deliberately engineered decision-making process that prevents or at least greatly complicates individuals’ capacity to exert their democratic right.
One of the key requisites in having influence is to ensure that complaints about Codex are both accurate, and can be substantiated. There are many examples to show that misinformation on Codex has acted as a smoke screen to conceal genuine complaints, and this enables politicians and bureaucrats to have a reason to reject people's concerns. Too often, we’ve had feedback from members of the public telling us that when they have approached their elective representative with their concerns they've been told that their facts are wrong and that they have misunderstood the problems so there is nothing that can, or need, be done.
Bearing this in mind we have the following advice:
1) Inform yourself about Codex using reliable sources such us documentation available from the official Codex website and our own site. Inaccurate information or disinformation can be more damaging to the cause than no information
2) Focus on the following issues
3) Communicate these concerns (above) to as many of your contacts as possible both within, and outside your country
4) Write to and/or meet with your elected representative and ensure s/he works on your behalf to influence your government
6) Work to influence national laws such as those on GMO’s, food additives, food safety, pesticide residues, organic farming, food supplements and health claims that are likely to influence the development of Codex guidelines and standards.
In essence, some of the most influential laws are derived form the EU, the USA and Canada. This is therefore a call to citizens and food producers and suppliers from these three countries to engage with the law making system to the maximum possible extent in the genuine interest of public health.
In addition to the actions of the individual (above), actions on Codex can be divided into three main groups:
For information about the 31st Session of the Codex Committee on Nutrition and Foods for Special Dietary Uses – CCNFSDU, to be held on 2-6 November 2009 in Dusseldorf, Germany, click here.
For a report of the 30th Session of the Codex Committee on Nutrition and Foods for Special Dietary Uses - CCNFSDU, held on 3-7 November 2008 in South Africa,click here.
For an ANH Codex exclusive on the lead up to the 28th Session of the Codex Committee on Nutrition & Foods for Special Dietary Uses (CCNFSDU), Chiang Mai, Thailand, November 2006, click here.
25th Session of the Codex Committee on Nutrition and Foods for Special Dietary Uses (CCNFSDU) 2003, Germany
Inform yourself! Find out what the Codex Committee on Nutrition & Foods for Special Dietary Uses (CCNFSDU) says about itself:
For the official CCNFSDU website, click here.
For images of previous sessions, click here.
If you want to find out what the official line on the Codex Committee on Nutrition & Foods for Special Dietary Uses is, you may be lucky enough to get yourself a copy of the official video about the CCNFSDU's activities produced by the German government and screened at the 2006 Committee meeting in Chiang Mai, Thailand. We had a link to the video which was in turn being streamed through a link on the www.ccnfsdu.de ">www.ccnfsdu.de website, but unfortunately, shortly after we linked to this, the link was taken down. We are aware of a number of people who have successfully obtained a copy of the video direct from the CCNFSDU after emailing email@example.com.
The video includes an interview with Dr Rolf Grossklaus, who heads up the Committee.
- November 2010, Dr Verkerk get's quizzed by Andrew Craig from Vital Times on what's really going on from Codex to the proposed EU herb ban that ANH is challenging in the courts
Part 1 of Interview (what is Codex? etc)
Part 2 of interview (organic foods, natural vs synthetic, etc)
Part 3 of interview (vaccination, food irradiation, Monsanto, etc)
- "Codex Alimentarius uncovered" - an article written by Leonie Nimmo (including Robert Verkerks view) for the July/August 2010 edition of Ethical Consumer. Download the pdf, or read an extended version of the article online
- To read the latest article by Dr Robert Verkerk for Caduceus magazine (July 09) titled"Codex Alimentarius - Focus on true threats, not disinformation" click here for a pdf of the article or here to read the article within the online version of the magazine.
- To read Dr Verkerk's article outlining the misinformation circulating about Codex click here.
10th March 2010 Update on Senator McCain's plans to 'Europeanise' US supplement laws
4th December 2009 Downing Street response to e-Petition shown to be a farce
30th November 2009 Downing Street ignores weight of public concern over Codex
To download ANH's one-page summary flyer of Codex, click here—print it, email it—help educate your friends and contacts about the long-term risk of the Codex slow cooker. It is, in part, its long drawn out timescales for the development and guidelines and standards that makes Codex Alimentarius guidelines and standards so problematic.
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