“Food regulations in different countries are often conflicting and contradictory. Legislation governing preservation, nomenclature and acceptable food standards often varies widely from country to country. New legislation not based on scientific knowledge is often introduced, and little account may be taken of nutritional principles in formulating regulations.”
― 1950 Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Nutrition
The practice of food trade has existed for several thousand years; however, due to the limitations in technology, infrastructure, and transportation at the time, most humans ate foods that were produced within their immediate vicinity. When food was scarce, groups would simply relocate.
Today, innovations in technology, infrastructure, and transportation have translated into the prolific international trading of various goods, including foodstuffs. Many countries around the world cite the export of foods as a main contributor to their economies.
As international food trade evolved, it quickly became apparent that ensuring the safe consumption of foods needed to be prioritized. The establishment and oversight of international food standards was—and still is—considered a difficult task.
The first significant attempt at creating international food standards came after the Second World War. Two prominent entities—the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), founded in 1945, and the World Health Organization (WHO), founded in 1948— began collaborating on how such standards could be formed.
At the First FAO Regional Conference for Europe in 1960, officials stated:
“The desirability of international agreement on minimum food standards and related questions (including labelling requirements, methods of analysis, etc.) was recognized as an important means of protecting the consumer’s health, of ensuring quality and of reducing trade barriers, particularly in the rapidly integrating market of Europe.”
In 1962, at the Joint FAO/WHO Food Standards Conference in Geneva, the Codex Alimentarius (CODEX) Commission was established. The global body would serve as a means of future collaboration on food safety issues between the organizations, and would be responsible for making and implementing proposals to the Joint FAO/WHO Food Standards Programme.
CODEX food standards were to be set by designated teams of government civil servants, health professionals, and experts within the fields of medicine and science. Participants from both organizations agreed upon the two guiding principles of CODEX food standards: to protect public health and to promote fair trade between nations.
CODEX Food Standard Guidelines
Prior to consideration of international food standards of any specific nature, the committee stated at its opening conference that any and all short- and long-term CODEX standards proposed and/or enacted should be based on a general observation and rule, “ensuring the marketing of a sound, wholesome product, correctly labeled and presented.” CODEX standards were to encompass a wide variety of foods, including processed, semi-processed, and raw.
Furthermore, to prioritize the safe trade of foods, CODEX standards sought to place particular emphasis on eight key factors: analysis, composition, definition, designation, hygiene, labeling, sampling, and quality. Additionally, these factors should be evaluated with thoroughness to ensure proper execution of standards; specifically, from appropriate administrative, legal, economic, scientific, and technical perspectives.
The first CODEX food standards fully reviewed and endorsed were based on resolutions from the Eleventh Session of the FAO Conference in Rome, Italy, 1961. The resolutions included a “code of principles concerning milk and milk products,” which details proper methods concerning the production, processing, and handling of all milk and milk products.
Since its founding, CODEX has created or revised food safety standards that span the entire food spectrum. Specific standards have been created or revised for fish, meat, milk, vegetables, oils, fruits, grains, special dietary foods, and other miscellaneous food products.
At present, the term ‘CODEX’ most commonly refers to (new and revised) standards that have been published by the FAO and WHO. The FAO has created a website that serves as the primary source of CODEX-related information.
To date, there have been four editions of the ‘Understanding CODEX’ booklet (available via download or by text). The booklet serves as an educational guide to the CODEX processes (e.g., scientific methodology, standard rationale, etc.) for consumers, those in the food trade industry, and governing agencies.
Impact of CODEX
Since its opening conference in 1963, the Codex Alimentarius has earned the status as arguably the world’s preeminent source for food safety information. For example, in 1985, the United Nations (UN) adopted CODEX guidelines as the reference point for all consumer protection matters involving food safety.
Today, there are 188 CODEX members (187 member countries and the EU) that “have negotiated science-based recommendations in all areas related to food safety and quality.” According to FAO, CODEX recommendations and standards include: “food hygiene; maximum limits for food additives; residues of pesticides and veterinary drugs; and maximum limits and codes for the prevention of chemical and microbiological contamination.”
FAO also cites 240 Codex ‘Observers,’ including non-governmental organizations (NGOs), intergovernmental organizations (IGOs), and United Nations (UN) organizations.