December 23, 1997
Dr. Edward Scarbrough, Ph.D.
Manager, U.S. Codex
United States Department of Agriculture
Food Safety and Inspection Service
Room 4861 South Building
Washington, D.C. 20250
Re: U.S. Position on Codex Draft Medium-Term Plan for 1998 to 2002
The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) submits these comments regarding the
United States' position on the Codex Draft Medium-Term Plan for 1998 to 2002. We urge the
U.S. to ensure that: (l) consumer groups are adequately represented in all Codex proceedings; (2)
the consumer's right-to-know is treated as a legitimate factor in Codex decisions; (3) food safety
and labeling standards are "harmonized" in an upward fashion; and (4) the relationship between
Codex and the World Trade Organization (WTO) is clarified to prevent Codex from becoming a
battleground for trade disputes. We also urge the U.S. to support the specific actions in the areas
of food additive regulation, equivalency agreements, and food labeling described herein.
I. Consumers must be adequately represented in all Codex proceedings.
We support the objective for "[i]mproved guidelines for participation of international
non-government organizations" in Codex proceedings. These guidelines, however, should
specifically promote the participation of non-government organizations representing consumer
The need for greater consumer representation was recognized at the June 1997 meeting of the
Codex Alimentarius Commission. The Commission's report concluded that participation of
non-government organizations (NGOs) should be encouraged, particularly independent consumer
NGOs. CSPI specifically recommends that consumer organizations meeting the following criteria
should be eligible for observer status: organizations must be independently financed groups and
must not accept funding from either government agencies or the food industry. The organizations
should address the interests of consumers in a particular region, or internationally, and must have
an established record of representing consumers on food-related issues at recognized national and
We are troubled that Codex has stated that strengthening public participation is excluded from
consideration as a medium-term objective. If Codex fails to take affirmative steps to increase
public participation, Codex standards will lose their credibility and legitimacy with the public. The
Commission must, therefore, assume direct responsibility for increasing public participation in the
II. The U.S. should support the consumer's right-to-know as a legitimate factor in Codex
Codex has the dual responsibility of protecting consumer health and promoting fair trade
practices. An essential element of the latter aspect of Codex's mission is ensuring the consumer's
"right to know." In his landmark message to Congress in March 1962, the same year that the
Codex Alimentarius was founded, President Kennedy defined this right as not only encompassing
the right of the consumer "to be protected against fraudulent, deceitful, or grossly misleading
information, advertising, labeling and other practices," but also the right "to be given the facts he
needs to make an informed choice."
Each subsequent U.S. president has endorsed the "consumer's right to know." For example, in his
address marking National Consumer Week 1994, President Clinton recognized the importance of
the consumer's right-to-know. He stated: "What has come to be called the Consumer Bill of
Rights has evolved as our marketplace has evolved. At present, it includes: 'The Right to
Information' -- the right to have full and accurate information upon which to make free and
considered decisions and to be protected against false or misleading claims."
The consumer's right to know and to choose is an essential part of furthering world trade. If
consumers are not given adequate information, then they cannot make informed purchasing
decisions, and producers cannot respond with the types of products that consumers want to
purchase. For example, in the United States, the provision of full nutrition information on food
labels has had a profound effect on the marketplace, leading to the development of thousands of
new low and reduced fat foods. The provision of analogous information concerning production
processes, percentages of ingredients, and other factors of importance to consumers would likely
have similar effects on both consumer and producer marketplace behavior in a variety of areas.
For example, consumers may wish to know whether a food is organic, natural, or irradiated so
they can "vote" with their pocketbooks and encourage production of products that meet their
Codex has recognized the consumer's right to know how foods are produced. For example,
Codex has recently approved a standard for the term "Halal." The U.S. should support such
continued efforts by Codex that promote fair trade practices by ensuring that the consumer's
right-to-know is fulfilled.
III. "Harmonization" should be defined as raising standards for food safety and fair trade
to the highest common denominator.
The Draft Medium-Term Plan calls for the issuance of guidelines on harmonization. To the extent
that international harmonization of food standards elevates regulatory requirements worldwide to
a consistent level of excellence, consumers will be well-served. But if harmonization merely
means regulating food standards to the lowest common denominator of acceptability, then the
welfare of consumers will be jeopardized. Unfortunately, recent actions taken by the Codex
Commission have led to the latter result. For example, Codex has adopted standards sanctioning:
In addition, Codex Committees have advanced standards that:
- Inspection systems operated by company employees rather than by government-paid officials.
In contrast, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has required government inspection
of meat and poultry since 1907.
- Bottled mineral water with lower levels of minerals than those required by the FDA.
- Nutrient content claims not permitted by FDA food labeling regulations.
Unfortunately, the Medium-Term Plan as currently drafted will lead to a further downward
harmonization of standards. We are particularly disturbed by the language "Consideration of
special or more flexible conditions which may apply to developing countries in the acceptance and
application of standards." This creates a double standard for developing countries. Consumers
who were sickened by ingesting contaminated Guatemalan raspberries, Mexican cantaloupes,
Peruvian carrots, and Thai coconut milk cannot seek solace in the fact that the exporting nations
may be developing countries. Clearly, the U.S. must support a basic paradigm shift in the
development of Codex standards. For example, instead of acquiescing to weaker standards for
developing countries, the U.S. should support international aid to help such nations meet world
class standards. The U.S. should take the lead in such efforts to ensure that harmonization leads
to higher, not lower international standards.
- Do not require pasteurization of dairy products.
- Permit food additives not approved by FDA regulations.
- Permit fruit juices, milk, and other foods to contain lead at levels exceeding U.S. standards.
IV. The relationship between Codex and WTO needs to be clarified.
The Draft Medium-Term Plan calls for the "clarification of the relationship between the
Commission and the World Trade Organization's Committees on Sanitary and Phytosanitary
Measures (SPS Committee). . . especially insofar as notification of the use of standards is
The U.S. should also support efforts by Codex to clarify the impact of Codex standards,
recommendations, and guidelines under the Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and
Phytosanitary Measures (SPS). Such action was recommended by the Commission. In its June
1997 report, the Commission "decided to request the SPS Committee through the Secretariat to
clarify how the SPS Committee would differentiate 'standards, guidelines and other
recommendations' in relation to the implementation of the SPS Agreement by WTO Members."
As currently drafted, the SPS Agreement does not differentiate between the effect of international
standards, guidelines, or recommendations. Unless the SPS Committee clarifies that there is a
distinction between these regulatory categories, guidelines or recommendations never intended to
have the effect of law will become binding under WTO procedures and the flexibility that
guidelines and recommendations are intended to convey will become lost. To avoid this outcome,
the U.S. must ensure that "guidelines" and "recommendations" retain their traditional meanings.
If the SPS Committee determines otherwise, then the U.S. should support amendments to the
SPS Agreement. Failure to do so would likely mean that Codex will become a battleground for
trade disputes as opposed to serving as an international health agency to improve consumer
V. Food additives not approved in the U.S. must not be adopted.
The Draft Medium-Term Plan states that "Completion of the General Standard for the Use of
Food Additives" will be an objective. As indicated in comments filed earlier this year, CSPI
strenuously opposes the adoption of those portions of the General Standard that pertain to
additives, or uses of additives, that have not been approved by the FDA. Thus, the U.S. should
qualify its support of this goal.
VI. Equivalency agreements should only be negotiated where there are mandatory
government safety standards and meaningful enforcement of those standards.
The draft also states that "equivalence and mutual recognition of harmonization of testing
procedures" should be an objective. As part of this objective, the draft states that Codex should
consider "[r]ecommendations on optimising control systems by ...voluntary quality assurance
schemes." As indicated in comments we filed earlier this year, food safety objectives cannot be
assured through voluntary quality assurance schemes alone. Rather, mandatory approvals and
mandatory government inspections are often necessary. Therefore, the U.S. should maintain the
position that "voluntary quality assurance schemes" cannot be relied on to provide an appropriate
level of public health protection.
VII. Nutrition labeling should not be the subject of Codex standards.
The Draft Medium-Term Plan calls for the "Review of the basis for nutrition requirement[s] and
food labelling requirements in light of scientific evidence and risk analysis." Nutritional
requirements and risks vary from region to region because of differences in diets, nutrient
consumption levels, diet-related health problems, and nutritional health priorities. Therefore, as
stated in comments we previously submitted, a global nutrition labeling standard is not
appropriate for Codex consideration. In addition, the U.S. has not had sufficient experience with
permitting health claims on food labels. Thus, as stated in comments we submitted earlier this
year, the U.S. should not advocate a Codex standard permitting health claims.
VIII. Administrative proposals on utilizing electronic technology to increase the flow of
information should be adopted.
We support transfer of the contents of the Codex Alimentarius to the World Wide Web. The
World Wide Web is playing an increasingly important role in information dissemination, and it is
essential that Codex take advantage of this new, increasingly effective and low-cost method of
information dissemination. We also support the transfer of Codex archives to electronic form.
For the foregoing reasons, CSPI respectfully requests that the United States support changes in
the Codex Medium-Term Plan to ensure that: (l) consumers are adequately represented at all
Codex proceedings; (2) the consumer's right-to-know is considered a legitimate factor in Codex
decisions; (3) harmonization becomes a means of raising the level of health and consumer
protection standards; and (4) the SPS Committee of the WTO acknowledges differences between
the effect of Codex guidelines, recommendations and standards under WTO procedures. The
relationship between Codex and the WTO must also be clarified to prevent Codex from becoming
a battleground for trade disputes.
Ilene Ringel Heller
Senior Staff Attorney