Trade vs food safety: Where the twain shall meet

• The trade off between food safety standards & exports is at the forefront of policy debate on agriculture in the present milieu.
• Rigid and divergent international standards on food safety are known to impact agricultural export prospects for developing and least developed countries.
• Till date, 188 countries are CODEX members (187 countries and EU as a group), which participate annually to discuss food safety issues and methods to adapt it unanimously.
• To be able to participate and engage in Codex work, countries need to invest resources on standardization of norms, besides ensuring effective coordination between all requisite sectors and stakeholders.

The Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (which is known as SPS Agreement of WTO) sets out the basic framework and standards for food safety, animal and plant health standards. It gives a platform to countries for framing their own standards. But at the same time, it also clarifies that regulations must be justified through science. They should be implemented only to the extent necessary to protect animal, human or plant life or health. And they should not arbitrarily or unjustifiably discriminate between countries where identical or similar conditions prevail.

Member countries are encouraged to use international standards, guidelines and recommendations where they exist. However, they may use measures, which result in higher standards if there is a requisite scientific justification. Apart from this, they can also set higher standards based on appropriate assessment of risks so long as the approach is consistent and not arbitrary.

Now the question is, which standards are practiced globally on food safety – Codex standards or individual country-specific standards? To better understand this, let’s go back to the acrimonious saga of 1989-90, when EU banned the imports of beef coming from US due to the quality of hormone! This incident clearly signaled that harmonisation of food safety standards is indispensable for spurring food trade across the globe in a more conducive manner. Thus when WTO was set up, the SPS agreement was framed to assure harmonisation, provide risk assessment and bring transparency under articles 3, 5 and 7 respectively.

CODEX Alimentarius food safety standards are cited under the SPS agreement for practicing and designing trade polices, as these are scientifically justified. The Codex process involves broad international input and sound scientific support from panels of independent experts. It provides governments with guidance on the adoption of national food safety standards and regulations to enhance public health protection within their territories. Codex standards and other texts dealing with all aspects of food quality and safety also promote fair practices in food trade. But the irony is that even today, economies continue to digress from CODEX standards.

Till date, 188 countries are CODEX members (187 countries and EU as a group), which participate annually to discuss food safety issues and methods to adopt them unanimously. To give a small illustration about this, maximum tolerance level of residuals or maximum residual limits (MRLs) of carbendazim in orange juice are different for each country.

Country Accepted MRL for carbendazim in orange juice (parts per billion)
Canada 500-600
EU 100-700
US 10

Apparently, the US claims that its high standards are necessary to ensure continued safety of orange juice so that it is fit for human consumption. However, this is a significant divergence from CODEX standards, which increases the impediments for developing and least developed countries. To maintain and satisfy each country’s food safety standards is too complex and expensive due to the high level of ambiguity for exporting economies.

Due to strict demands on MRL acceptability for aflatoxins, African economies lost US$ 670 million worth of exports to EU. Furthermore, as per this stringent food safety measure, the risk on human health estimated was 1.4 deaths per billion per year. This is a trend, which each member country needs to address, otherwise agricultural trade looks headed for a protectionist wave.

The harmonization of food standards is commonly viewed as a prerequisite to consumer health & safety as well as allowing the fullest possible facilitation of international trade. Harmonization can only be attained when all countries adopt the same standards. The General Principles of the Codex Alimentarius specify the ways in which member countries may “accept” Codex standards.

While the emerging world’s interest in all Codex activities clearly indicates global acceptance of the Codex philosophy, which is embracing harmonization, consumer protection and facilitation of international trade; but in practice, it is difficult for many countries to accept Codex standards in the statutory sense. Differing legal formats and administrative systems, varying political systems and sometimes the influence of national attitudes and concepts of sovereign rights impede the progress of harmonization and deter the acceptance of Codex standards.

Despite these difficulties, however, the process of harmonization is gaining momentum by virtue of the strong global desire to facilitate trade. An increasing number of countries are aligning their national food standards, or parts of them (especially those relating to safety), with those of the Codex Alimentarius. This is particularly so in the case of additives, contaminants and residues.

Policy makers in the realm of food safety need to address and resolve the challenge of implementing holistic approaches and constructing bridges between different disciplines as well as different sectors, including agriculture, environment, public health, tourism and trade. This is of special importance with changing consumer behavior and international travel in addition to international trade taking place at all levels of the food chain.

Today, non-transparent international supply networks often make it daunting to track the origin of all commodities and ingredients of food products. Individual governments have a crucial role in terms of adopting the vision for developing and facilitating the implementation of their national Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) standards that are consistent, germane with international requirements and have adapted to local policies and environment. Together, the public and private sector’s support are instrumental to deliver the skills and infrastructure needed for leveraging the safety and quality level of the agri-food chain, while simultaneously minimizing the impact on global agri-trade.

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