While Codex Alimentarius Commission is an organisation that develops independent science based international food standards, the World Trade organisation (WTO) is the only organisation that deals with global rules of trade between nations and settles trade disputes. However, it is relevant to point out that not all member countries of Codex are members of the WTO. WTO liberalizes trade but at the same time maintains trade barriers required to protect consumers or prevent the spread of disease. With regard to international food trade, WTO strives to provide an environment where consumers and producers know that they can enjoy regular supplies and greater choice of finished products, components, raw materials and services that they require.
WTO agreements those are important to Codex
- Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT) is an agreement that refers to technical regulations and conformation of assessment procedures which apply to all commodities including food. The TBT Agreement also covers measures that are intended to protect human safety and health.
- Agreement on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures this agreement covers food safety where members are entitled to establish sanitary and phytosanitary measures for the protection of human health, provided the measures are consistent with the provisions of the agreement. A common example of regulations whose objective is to protect human health is the labelling of cigarettes indicating that they are harmful to health. Sanitary and phytosanitary measures must be based and applied in a manner that would not be used as a disguised restriction that will affect international trade.
The SPS Agreement states that all members can base their sanitary and phytosanitary measures on the international standards, guidelines or recommendations. They also have the option to make their SPS measures stricter that international standards if there is a scientific justification for it. To ensure transparency, Member countries are required to notify if they have made any changes to the SPS measures especially if it affects trade. Members have to also set up an Enquiry Point from where they can respond to requests for information on their SPS measures.
Member countries of the WTO have the sovereign right to have a level of protection for foods that they consider appropriate as acceptable levels of risk. However, these levels of protection on foods must be based on a risk assessment. All those Members whose measures are in keeping with international standards are within their WTO obligations. If they have made their measures more stringent than the international standard then they could be challenged to justify such measures if they lead to a trade barrier.
These protection measures will be equal for domestic and imported products so there is no discrimination against foreign sources of food supply. Members are expected to promote the review and development of international standards. They need to accept the SPS measures of other member countries as equal even if they different from their own measures if the measures of other countries provide appropriate level of protection.
SPS Measures in the area of food safety may include
- Control and inspection procedures
- Pesticide tolerances
- Food additive approval processes
For food safety, the SPS Agreement makes specific reference to the standards, guidelines and recommendations established by the Codex Alimentarius Commission. Members are required to also participate in meetings, within the limits of their resources, in relevant international organizations and their subsidiary bodies especially in the Codex Alimentarius Commission in the field of food safety. This helps to promote the development and periodic review of standards, guidelines and recommendations. For food safety, the SPS Agreement, will use Codex standards in the following five areas
- Food additives
- Veterinary drugs and pesticide residue
- Methods of analysis and sampling
- Codes and guidelines of hygienic practices
What the TBT Agreement contains
The TBT Agreement aims to ensure that technical regulations and standards for packaging, marking and labelling requirements, and analytical procedures for assessing conformity do not create unnecessary obstacles to trade. For Codex purposes, most of the provisions under the TBT Agreement seek to protect consumers by providing information, mainly in labelling requirements, nutritional requirements, quality provisions, and methods of analysis to promote fair trade practices.
All food standards not covered by the SPS Agreement should be considered under TBT related measures. These provisions include classification and definition, essential composition and quality factors, packaging requirements and measurements (size, weight, etc.), so as to prevent any fraudulent practices that can deceive consumers. Under the TBT Agreement governments may decide that certain international standards are not appropriate for such reasons like fundamental technological problems or geographical factors.
Codex Standards are the benchmark for Food Safety
WTO Members are obligated to base their SPS measures on an assessment of the risk, taking into account all available scientific information. It is this need to adhere to science-based standards that provides the reason for WTO to make reference to Codex standards. Codex standards have been specifically referred to by WTO in dispute settlement cases. The examples for these are the US and Canada’s complaints against the EC’s prohibition of meat from animals treated with growth-promoting hormones (EC-Hormones) and Peru’s complaint against the EC’s trade description of sardines (EC – Sardines).
The Scientific basis for Codex
The scientific basis for Codex work is provided by FAO and WHO. Scientific advice is provided by FAO/WHO expert committees and ad hoc expert consultations. Being consistent with the risk analysis paradigm, the risk assessment activities of FAO and WHO are independent to the risk management activities of the Codex Alimentarius Commission and its subsidiary bodies.
- JECFA – food additives, veterinary drug residues, contaminants in food;
- JMPR – pesticide residues in food;
- JEMRA – microbiological hazards in food;
- Ad hoc Expert Consultations.
Role in harmonising standards
It is notable that the SPS and the TBT Agreements both acknowledge the importance of harmonizing standards internationally so as to minimize or eliminate the risk of sanitary, phytosanitary and other technical standards becoming unjustified barriers to trade.