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Food Safety Focus (198th Issue, January 2023)– Article 1

Codex Alimentarius and Food Safety

Reported by Mr. David KU, Research Officer,
Risk Assessment Section, Centre for Food Safety

This year, the Codex Alimentarius Commission is celebrating its 60th Anniversary. Since its establishment, the Commission's standards, the Codex Alimentarius, or more commonly known as the "Food Code", have been an important reference for national food safety regulations. To ensure harmonisation with international standards, the Codex Alimentarius is also one of the key benchmarks for developing and revising local food safety regulations.

What is Codex Alimentarius Commission?

Founded in 1963, the Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC) is an international body established by Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and World Health Organization (WHO) under the Joint FAO/WHO Food Standards Programme to develop food standards for protecting consumers’ health and ensuring fair practices in the food trade. The World Trade Organization (WTO) also names Codex as the relevant standard-setting organization for food safety.

The Commission currently has 189 members, including 188 member countries and one member organisation, the European Union, to participate in the annual meeting of the Commission and other meetings of a variety of committees to develop and endorse the food standards. These committees are: the Executive Committee that serves the executive purposes of the commission, General Subject Committees that develop standards for food in general such as standards for food additives and food hygiene, Commodity Committees that develop standards for specified foods such as fats and oils as well as fish and fish products, Ad-hoc Tasks Forces that are established for a fixed period of time to achieve a clearly defined purpose such as antimicrobial resistance, and Regional Coordinating Committees that address the challenges and needs of each region.

What is Codex Alimentarius?

Codex Alimentarius, established by CAC, is a collection of food standards, guidelines and codes of practice which serve the purpose of protecting consumers' health and ensuring fair practices in the food trade. Requirements for food listed in the texts are aimed at ensuring food products for consumers are safe, wholesome, free from adulteration, correctly labelled and presented.

To ensure food safety, scientific advice received from independent international risk assessment bodies are taken into consideration during the establishment of standards. Apart from food safety, Codex standards also serve the purpose of removing barriers to trade. In resolving trade disputes, Codex Texts form the reference for WTO as WTO members applying food safety measures stricter than those set by Codex may require scientific justification for the corresponding measures.

Texts established by Codex include a wide range of provisions, and these provision relates to food hygiene, food additives, residues of pesticides and veterinary drugs, contaminants, labelling and presentation, methods of analysis and sampling, as well as import and export inspection and certification.

Procedure for setting Codex Standards

To ensure the Codex standards are consistent with the current scientific knowledge and members’ needs, existing standards will be reviewed and amended as necessary and new standards will be proposed and set by the Commission.

The review of existing standards or establishment of new standards usually originates from the proposals submitted by different Codex Committees or members. The process of standard setting involves either a normal eight-step procedure (Figure 1) or a five-step accelerated procedure before the draft is officially adopted as a Codex standard. The two processes differ by the omission of a second round of comments and amendments from members and observers (Steps 6 and 7).

Figure 1: Procedures for setting Codex Standards

During the process of standard setting, scientific advice is received from independent expert bodies to enhance the credibility of the standards established. These expert bodies, such as the Joint FAO/WHO Meetings on Pesticide Residues (JMPR) and the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA), perform safety assessments and evaluations that are based on scientific information available.