The Codex Alimentarius Commission was established in 1962 by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization and World Health Organization to produce standards, codes of practice, and guidelines to protect consumers’ health and facilitate fair practices in international food trade.

Members of the World Trade Organization must participate in Codex activities and must base their food safety measures on Codex standards, codes of practice, and guidelines. WTO uses such Codex texts to arbitrate trade disputes. Thus, the decisions of Codex directly affect food safety and world food commerce.

Codex comprises nearly 200 member country governments, about 50 intergovernmental organizations (IGOs), and about 160 non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Representatives of these groups participate in meetings of horizontal committees (e.g., Food Hygiene), commodity committees (e.g., Milk and Milk Products), and task forces (e.g., Food Derived from Biotechnology) throughout the year, then convene at an annual meeting of the Commission to adopt draft texts. As an NGO, IFT has contributed valuable and often vital scientific and technical perspective to Codex deliberations since the early 1990s.

FAO and WHO are receiving an increasing number of requests from Codex committees, task forces, and member governments for scientific advice on food safety, particularly in the area of risk assessment of microbial hazards in fresh foods. The increased needs and requests for information and assistance are no surprise, in light of the inherent complexity of our increasingly global food supply, the ability of microbes to evolve, and the fact that a pathogen in one country can be transported to another country around the globe in a matter of hours.

FAO and WHO recently asked Codex contacts, including IFT, to provide data and other information spanning the whole food chain regarding microbial safety of produce. FAO and WHO also issued a request for experts for an upcoming consultation. IFT provided a detailed response, including pertinent data, information resources, and production-related specifics. We also forwarded the call for experts to IFT’s Fruit & Vegetable Products Division and Food Microbiology Division, generating interest and sparking some people to submit their credentials for consideration.

FAO and WHO have placed priority on areas (e.g., active chlorine and consumption of fish associated with methylmercury) that require innovative approaches (e.g., risk–benefit assessment), as well as on biotechnology, antimicrobial resistance, and nanotechnology, a burgeoning area in which IFT is quite active. Nanotechnology also came up this spring in the meetings of the Codex committees on Food Additives and Food Contaminants. FAO and WHO anticipate holding an expert consultation in 2008 and, as first steps, identifying the present and expected future applications of nanotechnology in the food system, any potential food safety issues, and exploring areas for further research and international guidance. IFT has member experts or pertinent documents available to address each of these issues.

IFT members having expertise in sanitizers, and chlorine in particular, responded to a recent Codex call for experts. And IFT’s Expert Reports on biotechnology, emerging microbiological food safety, and antimicrobial resistance are extremely valuable resources for representatives of various country governments and for IFT members serving on several Codex committees, task forces, and working groups.

Supporting research and development in food nanoscience is a priority for IFT. Our initiatives are led by a Food Nanoscience Working Group and reflect a strategic plan that recognizes that nanoscale science, engineering, and technology have great potential to affect sectors of the economy and the food industry. Our activities include annual International Nanotechnology Conferences, the third of which will be held in 2008 in New Orleans.

The working group also led submission of written comments on the research identified in the National Nanotechnology Initiative document (“Environmental, Health, and Safety Research Needs for Engineered Nanoscale Materials”) and on the benefits and challenges of applying nanoscience in food to the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. The working group also participated in the Nano Science and Technology Institute’s 10th Annual Meeting in Santa Clara, Calif., last May.

IFT’s involvement in such emerging issues as antimicrobial resistance and nanotechnology and our active participation as an NGO in Codex align well with our strategic goals: to be a steward for the profession and its community, research champion and innovation catalyst, influential advocate and trusted spokesorganization, and global citizen and partner.

by Rosetta Newsome, Ph.D.,
Professional Member of IFT, is Director, Dept. of Science & Communications, Institute of Food Technologists, 525 W. Van Buren St., Chicago, IL 60607 ([email protected]).