The WTO and the FAO/WHO Codex Alimentarius

Collaboration between WTO and the Codex Alimentarius concerns the use of international food safety standards in the context of the SPS Agreement.

See also:
> More on SPS
> Codex  website

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The WTO's SPS Agreement states that “to harmonize sanitary and phytosanitary measures on as wide a basis as possible, Members shall base their sanitary or phytosanitary measures on international standards, guidelines or recommendations”. The Agreement names the joint FAO/WHO Codex Alimentarius as the relevant standard-setting organization for food safety.

> See SPS Agreement Introduction, Article 12.3 and Annex A paragraph 3(a)


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FAO/WHO Codex Alimentarius Commission

The Codex Alimentarius is a collection of international food safety standards that have been adopted by the Codex Alimentarius Commission (the “Codex”). The Codex is based in Rome and funded jointly by the FAO and the WHO.

In the early 1960s, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations and the World Health Organization (WHO) recognized the importance of developing international standards for the purposes of protecting public health and minimizing disruption of international food trade. The Joint FAO/WHO Food Standards Program was established, and the Codex Alimentarius Commission was designated to administer the program.

The founders who established the Food Standards Programme and the Codex Alimentarius Commission were concerned with protecting the health of consumers and ensuring fair practices in the food trade. They felt that both of these objectives could be best met if countries harmonized their food regulations and adopted internationally agreed standards. Through harmonization, they envisaged fewer barriers to trade and a freer movement of food products among countries, which would be to the benefit of farmers and their families and would also help to reduce hunger and poverty. They concluded that the Food Standards Programme would be a solution to some of the difficulties that were impeding free trade.

The advantages of having universally agreed food standards for the protection of consumers were recognized by international negotiators during the Uruguay Round. It is not surprising, therefore, that the SPS Agreement and TBT Agreement, within the separate areas of their legal coverage, both encourage the international harmonization of food standards. Importantly, the SPS Agreement cites Codex's food safety standards, guidelines and recommendations for facilitating international trade and protecting public health.

The Codex Alimentarius is a science-based organization. Independent experts and specialists in a wide range of disciplines have contributed to its work to ensure that its standards withstand the most rigorous scientific scrutiny. The work of the Codex Alimentarius Commission, together with that of FAO and WHO in their supportive roles, has provided a focal point for food-related scientific research and investigation, and the Commission itself has become an important international medium for the exchange of scientific information about the safety of food. The standards of Codex have also proved an important reference point for the dispute settlement mechanism of the WTO. See hormones disputes DS26, DS48, DS320, DS321, and sardines dispute DS231.

Over the years, the Codex has developed over 200 standards covering processed, semi-processed or unprocessed foods intended for sale for the consumer or for intermediate processing; over 40 hygienic and technological codes of practice; evaluated over 1000 food additives and 54 veterinary drugs; set more than 3000 maximum levels for pesticide residues; and specified over 30 guidelines for contaminants.

> For more information see: Codex website

WTO Secretariat note: Relationship with Codex, IPPC and OIE  G/SPS/GEN/775