50th anniversary of the Codex Alimentarius Commission

Dr Margaret Chan
Director-General of the World Health Organization

Statement commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Codex Alimentarius Commission
Rome, Italy

2 July 2013

Excellencies, distinguished delegates, representatives of civil society, the private sector and scientific institutions, our sister agencies in the UN system, ladies and gentlemen,

Let me express my warm congratulations to the Codex Alimentarius Commission on its 50th anniversary. WHO can take some institutional pride in commemorating the many transformational changes introduced by Codex over these five decades.

Codex began as a joint venture between FAO and WHO, supported by countries. This is one of the longest-running collaborative undertakings in the UN family, and it has been profoundly effective.

Codex was established to meet a great and glaring need. In the early 1960s, legislation aimed at controlling the quality and safety of food varied greatly from country to country.

Laws were often enacted without a sound scientific foundation, and basic principles of nutrition were frequently overlooked. This confusion, variation, and lack of rigour and consistency was a significant barrier to trade.

Codex stepped in to reduce these barriers, to put science in the service of consumer protection and, in effect, to cast a safety net around the world’s food supply.

WHO has always been a most willing partner in the work of Codex. In fact, this is part of our job. The establishment of international standards for food is a function mandated by the WHO Constitution.

In 1953, the World Health Assembly expressed concern about the increasing use of chemicals in the food industry as a new health problem that needed to be addressed.

Consumers were also showing concern. Most food that has gone bad looks bad and smells bad. But hazards arising from the presence of toxins, additives, pesticides, and veterinary residues in food were invisible and could be neither smelled nor tasted. Consumers wanted some assurance of safety. They wanted to be protected.

Codex addressed these and many other concerns.

Over the decades, Codex has produced standards for a wide range of food commodities, whether processed, semi-processed, or raw, from spices and dried fruits to fresh milk and meat, and foods for special dietary uses.

The output has been remarkable. Altogether, Codex has established more than 200 food standards and more than 100 guidelines and codes of practice for food production and processing.

Codex has also addressed those “invisible” hazards. Maximum permissible levels have been established for thousands of food additives, contaminants, pesticides, and veterinary drug residues.

Today, Codex standards are the benchmark standards for food safety. There is no competition. They are internationally recognized as the best, at every point along the food chain.

Food standards promote fair practices in food trade. Food that conforms to international standards moves more freely across borders. Food standards level the playing field. Developing countries producing food that meets international standards can enter international trade on an equal footing.

Codex has had an enormous impact on how food producers and processors operate and on consumer confidence in the safety and nutritional quality of food, whether consumed in the home country or when travelling abroad.

Today, consumers expect that a purchased food item conforms with what is stated on the label. This trust is thanks to decades of work by Codex.

Codex standards contribute to equity. Everyone in the world deserves the same assurance that the food they eat is safe and nutritious.

Rooted in a rigorous scientific methodology, Codex has also lifted the standards for assessing food quality by stimulating food-related scientific and technological research.

Today, Codex membership covers 99% of the world’s population. Developing countries benefit from Codex standards once they have been adopted. But participation needs to be more inclusive.

As you have heard, WHO and FAO established the Codex Trust Fund in 2003. In its ten year history, the Fund has been used to support more than 2000 participants from 134 countries to attend Codex meetings and working groups. Countries that understand the process by which standards are set are in a better position to interpret and implement them effectively.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Safe and nutritious food sustains human life, ideally in good health. Unsafe food can cause disease, sometimes in very large outbreaks. Contaminated food can be deadly, usually taking its heaviest toll on the very young and the very old.

Hunger and undernutrition, and all the adverse consequences for health, continue to be priority issues of international concern. Talk about food security is on the table in discussions about sustainable development and the post-2015 development agenda.

In the midst of these enduring concerns, the world food supply has changed dramatically. Food production is increasingly industrialized. Distribution networks now span the globe. The notion that fresh fruits and vegetables have distinct seasons has all but vanished.

This has brought some advantages. Hunger has receded in many parts of the world, and dietary diversity can introduce significant health benefits.

But there is a negative side. Economic integration and the globalization of food trade mean that a single meal can contain ingredients from all around the world. The complexity of the food chain has increased, introducing more critical points where something can go wrong.

And when something does go wrong, it often does so on a grand scale. Investigations of outbreaks can involve multiple countries on multiple continents. Recalls can be massive, with huge economic losses. Consumer confidence can be shattered, and take a very long time to recover.

And there are other problems. Today, the cheapest, most convenient, most accessible, and best-tasting foods are often energy rich, yet nutrient poor.

Today, obesity and diet-related noncommunicable diseases often exist side-by-side with undernutrition in the same country, even in the same community or household. It is good to know that Codex is now addressing this issue through its nutrition and food labelling committees.

This may be one of the next great challenges for Codex: to introduce greater balance in the world’s food supply.

This is what we all want to see: safe, nutritious, and health-promoting food for all, whether home grown or a product of international trade.

Thank you.