Karen Hulebak chaired the Codex Alimentarius Commission from 2008 to 2011.
The European Union is currently waging an obscure but extremely substantial bureaucratic struggle in the United Nations. And if it does not back down, it could jeopardize the economies, and even the food supplies, of dozens of developing countries.
The livelihoods and lives of millions of people are at stake.
The dispute centers on the Codex Alimentarius Commission, sometimes described as “the most important organization you’ve never heard of”. Endorsed by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the World Health Organization, two United Nations agencies, Codex sets global safety standards for all foods traded internationally – a market of approximately $1.5 trillion.
Currently, the organization counts among its members the EU and 188 other countries, rich and poor. And although the safety standards set by Codex are all voluntary, many developing countries eagerly adopt them – almost by default – because they lack the resources and technical expertise to create their own stringent import rules. and food exports.
Codex standards touch virtually every aspect of the food supply chain, from additives allowed to the amount of residues that can remain in products and the supplements that can be fed to livestock. And the World Trade Organization identifies Codex as the global standards organization for food safety.
The creation of an internationally applicable food code like this is a huge and ongoing undertaking, adapting to the constant advances in agriculture and technological developments. It also requires extensive data collection, analysis, and scientific and technical assessment that can withstand rigorous scrutiny.
However, and above all, this requires finding common ground between the different scientific points of view. Each country – from Vanuatu to Venezuela, or from Canada to Kazakhstan – has a say in the hundreds of standards introduced each year. In fact, almost all standards are finalized by consensus. And if enough members oppose it, the standard in question cannot be adopted.
Given this requirement for consensus, which would lead to dysfunctions and deadlocks in most large organizations, Codex works remarkably well. And it boils down to a mechanism called “statements of principle,” which allows countries to individually object to a standard and register their disagreement, but in a way that doesn’t prevent the standard from being adopted.
For example, if a member country does not like a particular food additive, even though there is no scientific evidence showing that it is harmful, it can essentially say, “We are not going to adopt the voluntary standard of Codex in our own country. However, we are also not going to prevent other members from doing so.
This dispute resolution mechanism has worked quite well — so far.
Currently, the EU, along with Russia and China, are opposing the adoption of a standard for a generic veterinary drug called zilpaterol, which helps cattle more efficiently convert feed into muscle.
The bloc does not dispute the safety of zilpaterol. Instead, he opposes the standard due to non-safety and health concerns about consumer preferences.
None of these concerns provide a legitimate scientific reason to oppose a Codex standard. For example, the EU claims animal welfare concerns, but its own scientific advisory body, the European Food Safety Authority, found no adverse effects of zilpaterol on animal health at recommended doses. Moreover, as a matter of principle, the EU opposes medicines that are not used to treat specific diseases. And they also oppose it, because they don’t approve of the use of zilpaterol in the EU.
, the EU — which is perfectly free not to implement it within its own borders — deprives the rest of the world of the benefits of a shared standard.
And this ongoing spat could set a precedent with disastrous consequences, especially for developing countries.
Codex brings immense value to the entire global agricultural sector – from the smallest farmers to the largest agribusinesses – by providing uniform standards for foods traded internationally. These shared standards, and the universal confidence in the impartial and rigorous scientific process that underpins them, make it much easier for farmers in small countries to prepare their products for export, and for consumers in these countries to access to safe and imported food products. .
Allowing the EU to essentially block a scientifically sound standard for cultural reasons will ultimately jeopardize Codex’s reputation as an unbiased reference body. Other countries will no longer trust it to recommend public health and risk-based standards. And food manufacturers around the world will no longer bother with the time and expense of submitting their product safety data for evaluation.
The end result will be more paperwork and higher costs for almost everyone, and not everyone can afford that.
“For every percentage point increase in food prices, 10 million people are pushed into extreme poverty around the world,” warned the heads of the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and World Food Program in a recent joint statement. And blocking the adoption of a strong standard on unrelated concerns threatens to undermine the global trade networks that keep food on the table for hundreds of millions of people in developing countries.
It is time for the EU to drop its opposition.