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Codex Alimentarius: Globalizing Food

"There is a huge shift taking place in the global awareness in the last 5 years with strong views about globalization and the power structures of major corporations."
David Korten

Codex Alimentarius, according to its website, was created in 1963 by the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) to develop food standards, guidelines and related texts such as codes of practice under the Joint FAO/WHO Food Standards Program. The stated purposes of this Program are protecting the health of consumers, ensuring fair trade practices and promoting coordination of food standards.

At first sight, that seems a worthwhile goal. Unfortunately, the nice words hide a more sinister reality.

Codex Alimentarius is an industry-sponsored international legislative forum that promotes corporate interests in a globalized market, rather than consumer health and fair trade.

Until a decade ago, few had ever heard of Codex Alimentarius, unless they were directly involved in working out its standards or in making sure their country changed laws and procedures to comply with Codex rules - but that changed...

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In 1994, the German delegation of an obscure committee - the Codex Committee on Nutrition and Foods for Special Dietary Uses - proposed draft guidelines to regulate a new type of foods that had appeared in Germany during the 1980s but didn't look like foods at all. They were tablets and capsules with what to the Germans seemed crazy doses of vitamins and minerals. So for all intents and purposes these vitamin pills - they were called food supplements - seemed more like medicines to the German mind than the Sauerkraut and Apfelstrudel which were the healthy foods of the time.

The proposed guidelines promoted dosage restrictions in line with the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for each substance. Ironically, the idea of RDAs as a minimum (not an optimum) amount everyone should get of certain vital nutrients had been introduced in post-war Germany by the American occupation force but now it was used by the Germans to resist the push of new generation nutritional supplements into a very regulated and very pharma-friendly market. After all, medicines were big business. German pharmaceutical companies had been a mainstay of the export economy and were major actors in the so-called Wirtschaftswunder, the miraculous post-war economic recovery of German industry and commerce.


Although much of the industrial clout shifted from post-war Germany to the victorious Allies, especially the United States, when we consider globalizing markets, countries are not the major players. Industry, by merger and by taking over competitors, has become a force unto itself, no longer part of any one country and often outstripping countries in size.

A global club of producers resisting control by national legislators and governments is seeking to be left to the pursuit of profits, with as little interference and as little competition as possible. A well financed lobby addressing both lawmakers and government agencies works tirelessly to bring about what the multinationals like to call "a level playing field".

The global food and pharma industry just love Codex. Since its guidelines are often used as a template for national laws, once a guideline is passed, much work is saved in convincing countries to change their laws. They will normally adjust national rules to be in line with Codex.

Nominally, compliance with Codex guidelines is voluntary. Since the establishment of the World Trade Organization in 1995 however, any country that does not comply and finds itself in a trade dispute with another country, runs the risk of being subjected to trade sanctions. This is because the international court that decides in matters of trade disputes is bound to use international guidelines, where they exist, as their basis of law. So in real world terms, Codex Alimentarius guidelines are international law.

Additives, pesticides and GMOs

Codex Alimentarius has more than twenty active committees and task forces deciding on anything from animal feed to fishery products, from biotechnology to pesticide residues. While I cannot do more than briefly mention some of the other areas of Codex work, it may be useful to point out that we are essentially looking at industry making its own laws.

Codex is a great promoter of foods derived from biotechnology, better known as genetically modified organisms or frankenfoods. Since GMOs are Codex approved, it is very difficult for any country wishing to protect its citizens' health to refuse import of such foods. To justify a ban, a country has to go up against the scientific might of the world's best industry experts and prove, scientifically, that there is a danger. Europe is standing up to Codex on genetic modification to some degree, but only with great difficulty.

When we find pesticides and chemical additives in our foods we can thank Codex for that. Industry experts have figured out the levels that should be allowed in foods and Codex has institutionalized these levels. Any national attempt to reduce pesticides below the levels allowed by Codex or to eliminate some chemicals puts the country at risk of trade sanctions.

Although Codex has a task force on antimicrobial resistance, it has not banned the use of antibiotics in raising farm animals. There is an emergency coming our way - antibiotics are becoming ineffective. More and more resistant strains of bacteria are developing. The cause is known: huge quantities of antibiotics used in commercial animal feeding operations find their way into our food supply. Codex deplores the fact but does not prohibit the practice.

Industry lobby and national Codex delegations

Although Codex, as we have seen, is really an international law making body, it is by no means democratic. Codex delegations are typically formed by medium level ministerial officials advised by industry experts. The industry decides how to vote or what proposals to make on a given topic. The official head of a delegation is rarely knowledgeable enough, nor sufficiently determined on any course of action to set aside the advice and wishes of the industry lobbyists.

Decisions in the Codex Committees are reached by consensus. Seldom if ever are there any votes. Consensus is said to be an absence of sustained opposition to a proposal or text. The chair of any Committee has the power to give delegations time to talk or to deny any further discussion. That same person also declares when a consensus has been reached, passing to the next point of discussion. The result is - more often than not - a guideline text that leaves many delegations unsatisfied because their amendments were not accepted or their opposition not taken into account.

In this sense, Codex itself is profoundly undemocratic. It is able to bypass national parliaments completely and it can choose to ignore or override even direct input from national delegations. An apparency of democratic process is maintained by allowing non governmental organisations (NGOs) to attend meetings and at times to speak, but their voice is powerless. NGOs don't vote and their views are not taken into account when deciding on consensus.

Food supplements

It took the Codex Nutrition Committee a full decade - from 1994 to 2004 - to hammer out a text on food supplements. The final confirmation came the following year at a meeting of the full Codex Commission - the guideline was officially passed on the fourth of July 2005. Irony of ironies, some said, to finalize a guideline with the potential to greatly limit supplement availability on a day that for Americans signifies freedom and independence.

So the winner in the first round was Germany, or rather its pharmaceutical industry, but not without a lot of work and some intrigue. Although the Codex guideline proposal was made in 1994, it was not until the European Union had made its own law, a directive on food supplements, that enough of a force could be mustered to push the Codex guideline through against US resistance. The European directive meant all the European member states' delegates had to vote in unison, and in accordance with the text of the newly passed European law. With the combined strength of the then 15 EU member countries, supported by Rolf Grossklaus, the German chairman of the Nutrition Committee and Basil Mathioudakis, a senior official in the EU's Health and Consumer Directorate, the Codex guideline on supplements was eventually passed. The text remained very similar to the original German proposal and is practically an identical twin of the European directive on supplements.

Round two

The victory gained on independence day 2005 was sweet for the Germans, but it wasn't a knockout defeat for the US pharmaceutical and supplement industries. The text as passed has no teeth: it still lacks the figures to limit nutrient dosages in supplements. No actual limits were set, but it was agreed that work should proceed to scientifically evaluate the levels of intake at which nutrients show certain undesired effects.

While there may be some concern for a few nutrients at exaggerated dosages, supplements as they are sold today are extremely safe. They are much safer than food and aren't even visible on any statistics for causes of death. Yet the risk evaluation process that is to result in hard numbers for limiting nutrient doses is patterned after the way toxic chemicals are evaluated.

There are no positive health effects of chemical poisons, so any adverse effect is of importance. Nutrients instead are required for life. So any evaluation of risk should of course consider both sides of the equation - weighing the seriousness and number of adverse events against the potential good nutrients do when present in abundance. This is what discussions in this present round of nutrient risk assessment are about. Finding a cut-off dosage for each nutrient, will technically make higher dosages illegal, unavailable for anyone to buy.

Honest science and transparency

Supplements have become a political bone of contention. There are the restrictive countries - Germany backed by France, Greece, Denmark, Norway and some others, and we have more liberally inclined ones like the United States, South Africa, the UK, Ireland, Sweden and the Netherlands. The contest seems to center around "my industry is better than yours", when it should really be "how can human health be improved".

I believe we must find a way to bring transparency and scientific honesty to this process. As long as science is subordinate to industry and research can be skewed to fit industry's desires, as long as industry's wishes determine international rules and regulations where a self-interested group of multinational corporations can tell us what we should or should not eat, we will be in trouble.

We need independent scientists and a more balanced procedure of making these international regulations.

How about reforming Codex!


Most of the information in this article is based on my personal experience. Data has been collected and opinions matured during more than a decade, attending numerous meetings of industry groups, NGOs and Codex Committees. The article was finished on 8 August 2008, with some revisions on 10 August. It was originally written for Truth magazine. It is in the public domain and you may re-publish the entire article or use any part or all of it in a new article of your own composition.

Websites to check out about Codex:

Codex Alimentarius official site:
National Health Federation:
American Holistic Health Association:
La Leva di Archimede:
Dr Rath:

Sepp Hasslberger