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The Codex Files: What is Codex and Why Is It Important?

Written by: Mallory Gaines   |   November 7, 2019

Codex

Mallory Gaines attending a Codex committee meeting.

For many years now, AFIA members have heard about “Codex.” Codex is short for the Codex Alimentarius, an international standard-setting body that formulates food safety guidelines and standards to protect consumer health and help to harmonize the food trade. Why Codex is important to AFIA members is easy to explain, and I will in this first of three blogs, but Codex as an organization can be quite complicated. The structure of Codex, terminology used and political intricacies can easily be confusing.  

Let me start with the easy part, of why Codex is important. When the World Trade Organization (WTO) agreed to the Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS Agreement), they agreed on how governments can apply food safety and animal and plant health measures, so trade is not obstructed. Countries have different ideas about what an SPS measure is, so the WTO referenced three international standard-setting bodies to set international standards to help encourage free trade and stop non-science-based trade barriers. The WTO SPS Agreement acknowledges Codex as the food safety standard-setting body, the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) as the animal health standard-setting body, and the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC) as the plant health standard-setting body.

Mallory Gaines (right) at the Codex Task Force on Antimicrobial Resistance meeting in Korea.

By referencing Codex, OIE and IPPC in the WTO SPS Agreement, it means that if one country brings a trade dispute against another country regarding food safety, animal health or plant health, the reference bodies are the science-based standards that are utilized to assess which country is in the right and which country is using SPS issues as a barrier to trade.

This may sound rather straight forward, Codex is science-based and makes science-based decisions; however, like many (or all) organizations, Codex also deals with politics. Not all countries work off of risk analysis like the United States does. Some countries use the precautionary principle which is less risk-based and more IF a hazard might occur, then it is not safe. Poorly written Codex standards can negatively impact trade. AFIA’s interest in Codex is an interest in promoting science-based standards, founded on risk assessment, so later down the road countries are set up for productive trading relationships and are less likely to use SPS measures as a way to block trade. Good Codex standards and guidelines are tools in our toolbox for free trade.

I look forward to continuing to discuss Codex on the blog. If you have questions do not hesitate to reach out to me and check out our new Codex FAQ on the AFIA website.

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