Representatives from 169 countries gathered in Rome yesterday to tackle standards for the global food trade. High on the agenda : food safety, biotechnology, food irradiation and an overhaul of the Codex structure.
The Codex Alimentarius Commission - a joint commission of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) that sets food safety and agricultural trade standards - has its work cut out as trade expands and developing countries enter the world market.
FAO director general Jacques Diouf remarked at the opening session that the increase of food trade, especially of processed foods, was not limited to developed countries, "but can be observed in many developing countries as well".
Today, thanks to surging trade, there is a wider variety of foods available on the market than at any time in history. But such developments leave trade vulnerable to food safety issues and fair practice - to be tackled by Codex, whose two primary mandates are to protect consumer health and assure fair practices.
According to WHO director general Gro Harlem Brundtland, governments have asked that the WHO helps developing countries strengthen their capacity in all areas of food safety.
As such, there are high hopes that during its 26th session, the Codex Commission will adopt standards that improve food safety, including one for levels of radiation that may be used in food irradiation.
In response to concerns about meat consumption and consumer safety in the wake of problems such as Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (mad cow disease), some of the standards before the Commission would establish principles of meat hygiene, a code of practice on good animal feeding, including feed additives and maximum residue limits in food products for veterinary drugs.
There is also a code of practice on the prevention of patulin contamination in apple juice, a code of practice for the prevention of mycotoxin contamination in cereals and one for fresh fruits and vegetables.
Also due to be adopted are guidelines for assessing the food safety risks associated with foods derived from the much debated technique of biotechnology.
These include broad general principles covering issues such as pre-market safety evaluations and the role of product tracing for food safety and post-market monitoring.
Separate detailed guidelines have been prepared for the scientific assessments of DNA-modified plants and foods and beverages derived from DNA-modified micro-organisms. Special attention has been paid to the decidedly controversial question of assessing whether such products could provoke unexpected allergies in consumers.
In addition to food safety issues, Codex will consider the adoption of new standards to clearly define many food items, including chocolate and chocolate products and when the use of term 'chocolate' is allowed. If adopted, the new standard will require a declaration of minimum cocoa content for all chocolate flavoured products.
Other standards will define quality standards for anchovies, limes, pommelos and grapefruits. Olive oils and olive pomace as well as named vegetable oils also have quality standards up for adoption by Codex. There is also a draft standard before Codex defining canned bamboo shoots, liquid coconut products, such as coconut milk and coconut cream, fruit juices and nectars, cream and prepared cream and fermented milk products, such as yoghurt and cheese.
In addition to the food standards, the Commission is set to examine proposals to overhaul its own structures and procedures so that food standards can be developed more rapidly at the international level with an increased focus on the health of consumers and with greater active participation by developing countries.