With today’s global food supply, nations are dependent on each other´s actions. In the old days, foods were traded locally, so if these foods were contaminated, the foodborne illness that developed remained a local problem. Now, increasing international trade has resulted in improved nutrition, but also a greater probability for unsafe food to reach a large population.
Because of this, food safety issues across the globe are getting more attention, and this in turn has increased the visibility and importance of the Codex Alimentarius Commission, the major international mechanism for promoting the health of consumers through the establishment of food safety standards. Codex is to develop these worldwide standards through scientific discussion by member countries.
The United States Codex office, based at the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, operates with two committees. The Technical Committee recommends positions based on technical analysis of issues, and the Policy Committee evaluates these recommendations and develops the final U.S. government position on issues.
The U.S. government believes that food safety standards must be based on the “risk principle”—that assessment of the risk inherent in foods should be based on scientific evidence—and that strict standards reflective of a high risk should not be established if the scientific evidence demonstrates the risk to be minimal or below acceptable levels.
Unfortunately, many representatives from around the world on Codex committees use a “precautionary principle,” letting unscientific opinion influence the decision-making process. We cannot afford to gamble this way when it comes to food safety. Harmful bacteria, with their long history of survival and adaptability to changing environments, cannot be completely eliminated in raw foods. However, those who advocate precautionary principles against these organisms expect that we can eliminate the risk by simply saying that we will do anything that will prevent exposure to that risk, even if such measures are truly ineffective and simply provide a veneer of safety.
We need to ensure that all representatives serving within Codex are using sound scientific principles as their guide, not extreme and simplistic notions of risk. Precautionary principles stymie the fair trade of safe foods by setting insurmountable standards, which only serve to further exacerbate the problems of millions suffering from malnourishment around the world.
Another challenge is the wide disparity of representation within Codex. To improve food safety worldwide and for Codex to succeed as a truly international organization, we need to ensure that all voices are heard. Currently, the membership of Codex does not accurately reflect the world’s population. Europe, which has 4% of the world´s population, constitutes about a quarter of Codex membership. By contrast, the population of Latin America and the Caribbean is twice as much as Europe´s, yet they represent 19% of the Codex membership. Furthermore, 20 of these members are small countries in the Caribbean whose smaller human and financial resources make it very difficult to be actively involved in the many Codex committee meetings. Several countries in this predicament missed out on the recent 27th Session in Geneva, Switzerland, where issues such as country-of-origin labeling, labeling of foods derived from biotechnology, and antimicrobial resistance were discussed. In addition, many nations lack the knowledge and system to keep up with Codex issues, hampering their meaningful participation.
Thus, we have a long way to go before we reach a level playing field in the international community. There are several challenges:
• Food companies in nations across the globe need to interact more with each other and with the Codex offices in each nation.
• Codex needs to hear from the scientific community on many issues. This is where organizations such as the Institute of Food Technologists can play an integral role in raising the profile and contributions of food scientists in the Commission. There is a significant amount of difficult work in explaining the science behind certain positions to partners around the world, and this is where IFT’s expertise is crucially needed. Food scientists in the U.S. can provide their input through IFT, which participates in Codex as a non-governmental organization.
• Food safety policy must be based on science, not politics masquerading as science.
• In addition to industry, we also need to look at academic institutions and government agencies in other nations as potential partners for contributing knowledge, funding, and infrastructure.
There is a battle going on in the world of food safety. Science-based risk assessment must win over simplistic notions of precaution. We must garner support for this viewpoint, both domestically and internationally. By working together for the benefit of all, I have no doubt that we will succeed.
by Elsa A. Murano is Under Secretary for Food Safety, U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Washington, D.C. Based on a speech to the IFT Food Laws & Regulations Division at the 2004 IFT Annual Meeting.