Codex Alimentarius – Protecting consumers’ health through safe and nutritious food – the first 50 years

June 2013

For 50 years, Codex Alimentarius has adopted several hundred international standards on food safety and nutrition to protect consumers’ health and ensure fair practices in the food trade.

In 2008, one of the largest food safety incidents in Codex history alarmed consumers across the globe. Several thousand children had fallen ill in China because they had drunk melamine-contaminated infant formula. High concentration of melamine in food can cause kidney failure and even kill people. In the wake of the discovery of the tainted baby formula, imported melamine-contaminated products had been detected also in other countries.

Setting international standards on food safety

Participants at a Global Foodborne Infections Network (GFN) laboratory training course.
Global Foodborne Infections Network (GFN)

WHO took immediate action. The Organization informed all its Member States of the event, provided regular updates on implicated products and their distribution and, with FAO (the UN Food and Agriculture Organization), called an ad-hoc expert meeting. This meeting, held in December 2008, assessed the risks associated with ingesting the chemical and identified a safe level for daily melamine intake. In 2010, based on the findings of the expert meeting, the Codex Alimentarius Commission, the UN food-standard setting programme established by WHO and FAO in 1963, adopted a standard for the maximum level of melamine in powdered infant formula and other foods.

The melamine case illustrates the need to develop international standards on food safety and nutrition based on sound scientific assessments. This example also shows that the Codex system allows the international community to respond rapidly to unexpected new developments that impact on health and/or international trade.

50 years of improving food safety

Codex aims to protect consumers’ health and ensure fair practices in the food trade. The Commission, whose collection of food standards is titled the “Codex Alimentarius”, (Latin for ‘food code’), celebrates its 50th anniversary in July 2013. Today, the body encompasses 185 Member States, the European Union, and many observers from other UN organizations, intergovernmental organizations and civil society.

Red salad vegetables on display in a supermarket.
WHO/M. Heine

“Improving food safety and nutritional content of food to ensure health of all people in a globalized world remains a challenge for all governments around the world,” says Dr Kazuaki Miyagishima, Director of the WHO Department of Food Safety and Zoonoses. “Codex is operating as a transparent, international forum for consensus building for food safety standards, which is open not only to national food control authorities but to the civil society representing consumers, scientists and food producers.”

Since its creation the Commission has adopted several hundred standards that proved to be critical tools to protect consumers from food threats. The standards ensure the quality and nutritional value of foods, provide consumers with relevant information through labelling, but also prevent trade disputes. Recently, the Commission has dealt with aflatoxins in figs, mercury in tuna, pesticides in different crops, the control of viruses in food and is also addressing increasing public health problems of diet-related noncommunicable diseases. To prevent food contamination at the source, Codex also develops Codes of Practices for safe food production including animal feeding.

International benchmarks based on scientific evidence

Codex standards are based on scientific evidence provided through independent expert meetings, such as the melamine meeting. Several long-standing committees address different aspects of food safety and nutrition, and the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA), for example, is one of the longest standing expert committees in WHO, meeting regularly since 1956.

“Upon a request from Member States filed through a Codex Committee, we can ask FAO and WHO for scientific advice”, explains Mr Sanjay Dave, the Chairman of the Codex Alimentarius Commission. “WHO and FAO will then convene an independent international expert meeting to assess all available evidence and provide recommendations for consideration by the relevant Codex Committee. Based on this recommendation and in accordance with the established Codex Procedures, the Commission adopts a Codex standard.”

While Codex standards are non-mandatory, they gained the status of international benchmarks for food safety under the World Trade Organization (WTO) Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures in 1995. This has resulted in a marked increase in the global relevance of the standards, which have been used on several occasions by WTO to find a solution for trade conflicts.