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Over the course of the past two years, several consumer goods and products have been impacted by COVID-induced supply chain woes. And while it’s translated to inconveniences such as wait times to purchase a new car, changing your toilet paper brand of choice, or substituting foods in what was a tried-and-true recipe, the ability to deviate without harm cannot be said when talking about the baby formula shortage.

For American parents of infants, the baby formula shortage isn’t new. While only recently has coverage exposed the nightmare that has become finding formula – at the start of May, 43% of baby formula was out of stock at retailers, according to Datasembly – American consumers began to experience issues well before Abbott’s Sturgis facility was closed in February. And while the current Administration enacted the Defense Production Act and launched Operation Fly Formula, we must recognize how fragile certain aspects of our food system are, especially for the most vulnerable, including infants and children, and acknowledge the realities that extend beyond a single plant closure in the US. One of those realities is the vital need for harmonized global food safety standards to mitigate food-related crises.

To learn more about global food safety standards and what they could mean for alleviating shortages, including in the instance of baby formula, we asked IFT’s own Steve Havlik to address a few questions:

What are global standards for food (i.e., what is Codex?)?
The Codex Alimentarius Commission or “Codex” is the United Nations FAO sponsored and internationally aligned set of voluntary food standards, guidelines, and codes of practice focused on the safety, quality, and fairness of international food trade. In existence for 60 years, Codex provides many nations with a harmonized set of standards to make global trade much easier. Consumers and global food ingredient purchasers can trust the safety and quality of the food products they buy, and food importers can trust the food products they ordered will be in accordance with the Codex specifications.

Are there certain foods or food groups that have global standards?
The Codex Alimentarius standards include all the principal foods and food categories, whether processed, semi-processed, or raw for distribution to consumers or importers. Materials for further processing into foods are included to the extent necessary to achieve the purposes of Codex, including provisions with respect to food safety/food hygiene, food additive usage, residues of pesticides and veterinary drugs, contaminants in food, the labeling and presentation of food packaging, methods of analysis and sampling and the inspection/certification of foods for import or export.

How do U.S. food safety standards differ from global standards?
U.S. food safety standards are developed and enforced by both the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) depending on the type of food involved. In some cases, U.S. safety standards are aligned with Codex, but they can sometimes differ for a variety of food products, with baby formula being one of the product categories where the U.S. standards differ from both Codex and those of some other developed regions (e.g., European Union, United Kingdom, Australia).

How can global standards help in mitigating shortages and supply chain issues?
When an individual country has food product standards that are not aligned with a global standard (e.g., Codex), it makes the process of importing that type of food difficult, and in some cases, virtually impossible. The use of global standards enables the manufacture and supply of a food product to be done wherever the global standards are in place, hence those other countries can supply the food product if there are issues with production within a particular country and thereby mitigate shortages.

In the case of baby food, if the US had the Codex baby food standard in place, importers (e.g., Walmart, Kroger, Albertsons, etc.) could purchase supply from sources outside the U.S. the moment a shortage occurred (like the current baby food formula situation). However, it took approval of an exemption by the FDA to allow the U.S. government to import non-US-produced baby formula. Without that exemption, companies were prohibited from doing their own importing from non-U.S. sources.

Who would/could potentially set and enforce global standards?
Any country can set its standards to align with the Codex global standards voluntarily. Enforcement still belongs with that country upon the importing of the food product.

With the U.S. and baby formula, the FDA would have needed to set the standard prior to the issue arising, and then importing distributors (e.g., Walmart, Kroger, etc.) would shift some of their sourcing to imported products. That product would arrive at U.S. ports of entry and would be evaluated for alignment with the standard by the federal government (FDA/USDA). As long as the producing country factory was registered with the FDA as a producing facility and met the standard requirements, it would be allowed to be imported. Overall, the U.S. Congress can dictate to FDA/USDA that certain food products should be aligned with global standards if they so choose.

What are the barriers to having global standards?
Many countries use their own internally developed standards for a variety of reasons, but primarily out of concern for control related to their considerations of food safety or quality, or in order to drive within country food production to protect a particular food manufacturing segment within that country. Examples of such differences in standards would be extra stringent standards for contaminants like arsenic in rice or the use of certain veterinary drugs on milk cows and therefore milk products derived from those cows. The barriers can also be driven by existing food-producing businesses within a country wanting to be protected from global competition.

What are some ways we could overcome these barriers?
First, alignment on a common standard for a product category as is done with Codex is crucial. A country has to be willing to not drive a different standard from Codex due to their own interpretation of food safety or quality but to compromise jointly with the rest of the global community based on a common interpretation of the science associated with those food products regarding safety and quality. There is a concern within many countries that they are giving up control of their food supply in some way by using global standards. While understandable, Codex has worked hard to base decisions on global standards on the best available sound scientific assessment by globally sourced experts. Within country protectionism is one of the major barriers that importers face and is a major cause of a lack of robustness in the food supply chain.

Since a country voluntarily aligns standards with Codex on a given food product class/category, they still maintain control and are still in charge of enforcement upon importation of the standard. Another important way barriers can be overcome is to use a globally aligned standard like Codex but protect the internal production of such products from excessive global competition by restricting the percentage of that product type that can be imported (say 40%), thereby guaranteeing a domestic industry. Another way countries can protect their domestic industry without having a standard different from Codex is to restrict the country or number of facilities that they allow to produce a food product outside of domestic sourcing.

Below are links to the Codex Baby Formula standard and the U.S. Baby Formula standard for comparison.

To learn more about the current administration’s work in addressing the baby formula shortage, please read The Biden-Harris Administration’s Fact Sheet on The White House website.

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