Karen Hulebak chaired the Codex Alimentarius Commission from 2008 to 2011.
The European Union is currently picking an arcane but hugely consequential bureaucratic fight at the United Nations. And if it doesn’t 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 hang in the balance.
The conflict centers on the Codex Alimentarius Commission, sometimes described as “the most important organization you’ve never heard of.” Chartered by the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization, both U.N. agencies, Codex sets global safety standards for all foods traded internationally — a roughly $1.5 trillion market.
Currently, the organization counts the EU and 188 other countries — rich and poor alike — as members. And although the safety standards set by Codex are all voluntary, many developing countries eagerly adopt them — almost as a default — as they lack the resources and technical expertise needed to create their own rigorous rules regarding food imports and exports.
Codex standards touch virtually every aspect of the food supply chain, from what additives are permissible to what level of residues can remain in products and which supplements can be given to livestock. And the World Trade Organization identifies Codex as the global standard-setting organization for food safety.
Creating an internationally applicable food code like this is an enormous and continuous undertaking, adapting to constant agricultural advances and technological developments. It also requires extensive data collection, analysis, and scientific and technical evaluation that can withstand rigorous scrutiny.
However, most crucially, it requires finding common ground among differing scientific viewpoints. Every country — from Vanuatu to Venezuela, or Canada to Kazakhstan — gets a say in the hundreds of standards introduced each year. In fact, nearly every standard is finalized by consensus. And if enough members object, the standard in question can’t be adopted.
Given this requirement for consensus, which would cause dysfunction and gridlock in most large organizations, Codex works remarkably well. And this comes down to a mechanism called the “Statements of Principle,” which allows countries to individually object to a standard and have their disagreement recorded, but in a way that doesn’t prevent the standard’s adoption.
For instance, if a member country dislikes a particular food additive, even though there’s no scientific evidence showing it’s harmful, it can essentially say: “We’re not going to adopt Codex’s voluntary standard in our own country. However, we’re also not going to prevent other members from doing so.”
This dispute resolution mechanism has worked quite well — until now.
Currently, the EU, along with Russia and China, is objecting to the adoption of a standard that pertains to a generic veterinary drug called zilpaterol, which helps cattle convert feed to muscle more efficiently.
The bloc doesn’t dispute the safety of zilpaterol. Instead, it;s opposing the standard because of non-safety- and non-health-related concerns regarding consumer preferences.
None of these concerns provide a legitimate scientific reason to object to a Codex standard. For example, the EU claims animal welfare concerns, but their own scientific advisory body, the European Food Safety Authority, found no adverse effects of zilpaterol on animal heath at the recommended doses. Further, as a matter of policy, the EU objects to drugs that aren’t used to treat specific diseases. And they also object, as they don’t approve zilpaterol for use in the EU.
Yet, the EU — which is perfectly free not to implement it within its own borders — is depriving 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 provides immense value to the entire global agricultural sector — from the smallest farmers to the largest agribusinesses — by providing uniform standards for internationally traded food. Those shared standards, and the universal confidence in the impartial, rigorous science-based process behind them, make it much easier for farmers in smaller countries to prepare their products for export, and also for consumers in those countries to access safe, imported food products.
Allowing the EU to essentially block a scientifically sound standard for cultural reasons will ultimately jeopardize Codex’s reputation as an impartial reference body. Other countries will no longer trust it to recommend public health and risk-based standards. And the food manufacturers of the world will no longer bother going through the time and expense of submitting their products’ safety data for evaluation.
The end result will be more red tape and higher costs for almost everyone, and the world can ill afford that.
“For each one percentage point increase in food prices, 10 million people are thrown into extreme poverty worldwide,” warned the heads of the World Trade Organization, World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and World Food Program in a recent joint statement. And blocking the adoption of a sound standard over 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’s time for the EU to drop its opposition.