Barbara Petersen

Several decisions critical to the food industry are under discussion. They cover a wide range of food issues, including whether to establish standards that would not endorse the use of colors in as-yet-undefined “basic” foods; whether products containing “foods derived from modern biotechnology” require labeling and, if so, what the label must say and how much material would require labeling; safety determination of pesticide residues in foods; and others.

These discussions are taking place in the Codex Alimentarius Commission—the international food standards program of the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization and World Health Organization. Codex limits itself to issues that affect food safety and which could cause trade problems. It has been designated by the World Trade Organization as the authoritative body for food safety determinations. Hence, its standards, guidelines, and codes of practice have far-ranging and critical impacts on the food industry.

Codex has agreed that all decisions are to be based on science. It is clear, however, that for many of the current issues a wide range of opinions exist as to what is scientifically defensible. IFT is in a unique position to provide scientific and technical expertise and science-based advice to Codex. Recognized by Codex as a non-governmental organization, IFT is actively involved in several “horizontal” Codex committees (e.g., Food Hygiene, Food Labeling).

IFT’s Committee on Codex leads the Institute’s involvement in Codex activities. Given the broad range of Codex activities (more than 20 committees meeting annually to discuss more than 500 different agenda items), the committee sets priorities each year. In doing so, it reviews Codex meeting agendas to identify topics for which it seems critical that scientific approaches are followed and in which IFT members have expertise. In many cases, science is interpreted very differently, depending on which country or special interest is represented. This is not surprising, given the enormous impact of the decisions on international trade. IFT works to ensure that Codex receives the best scientific input and to highlight proposals that are not based on science.

Critical decisions will be made in the near future on standards for many food additives and on limits for contaminants (including dioxins, cadmium, methyl mercury, lead, and mycotoxins). These decisions require determination that levels found in food moving in international trade are safe for consumers. This process has been completed for aflatoxin in peanuts. The opinions of the FAO/WHO Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives and Contaminants (JECFA) allowed Codex to identify levels that would ensure consumer safety. Codex then considered those levels in relation to their impact on trade and adopted a standard. Some European countries thought the levels that were adopted were too high. Although they permitted adoption of the limits, the European delegates proposed changes to the sampling plans, currently under debate, that would essentially result in lower limits. The feasibility and appropriateness of sampling is critical and an area in which IFT can provide scientific support. Standards for several other mycotoxins (patulin, ochratoxin A, zearalenone, and fumonisin) are currently under debate in Codex. JECFA will convene a special meeting in 2001 to focus on mycotoxins.

Codex has a well-established process for evaluating the safety of pesticides and establishing standards (Maximum Residue Limits, MRLs). Both Europe and the U.S. have major new pesticide statutes and programs, resulting in proposals to revise the Codex process and in major conflicts as to “whose science is better.” For example, procedures for determining the safety of both short-term and long-term exposures are being debated. The debate will require decisions as to the most appropriate and feasible food consumption and residue data to use. This debate has slowed down the review of newly developed pesticides. Because data for many older pesticides are not being provided to Codex, the MRLs for the pesticides are being dropped. This is a concern to many governments, particularly those in developing countries, because it could leave farmers and food producers without adequate tools to protect the food supply.

Various aspects of biotechnology are being considered in more than five Codex committees. A special Task Force has been convened to assist in this debate. The Food Labeling committee has had extensive discussions on the specifics of labeling these foods and is expected to make significant progress on the subject during its May meeting in Ottawa, Canada. Biotechnology-related issues are also under consideration within the Food Additives and Pesticide Residues committees.

The Food Hygiene committee continues to address issues of tremendous importance. It is working on Codes of Hygienic Practice for the “Primary Production, Harvesting, and Packing of Fresh Fruits and Vegetables” and “Pre-Cut Fresh Fruits and Vegetables.” Supporting the initiation of WHO/FAO Expert Consultations on Microbiological Risk Assessment, the committee recommended the following initial work priorities: Salmonella in eggs, poultry, and pork meat; Listeria monocytogenes in ready-to-eat food; Campylobacter jejuni in poultry; enterohemorrhagic Escherichia coli in sprouts and ground beef; and Vibrio parahaemolyticus in shellfish. The committee is also proceeding with a discussion paper on controlling Listeria in international trade. It is also developing “Principles and Guidelines for the Conduct of Microbiological Risk Management.”

Several of the Codex committees meet this spring. Stay tuned for more information on the developments. Meanwhile, you may visit the Codex Secretariat’s Web site at for meeting reports and other information.

Also, if you have any thoughts about Codex activities that you would like to share with IFT’s Committee on Codex Alimentarius, send them to me at [email protected] or to Rosetta Newsome in IFT’s Science and Communications Dept. at [email protected].

President, Novigen Sciences, Inc.,
Washington, D.C., and Chair, IFT Committee on
Codex Alimentarius