9 July 2003 A United Nations commission that is the highest international body on food standards has adopted a landmark agreement on assessing the risks to consumers from foods derived from biotechnology, including genetically modified foods, as well as irradiated products, it was announced today.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) said the Codex Alimentarius Commission, a subsidiary of both agencies meeting in Rome, had adopted more than 50 new safety and quality standards, some of them ground-breaking guidelines, others revisions of old standards.
"These guidelines are a very important step towards understanding the risks associated with foods derived from biotechnology," the Secretary of the Codex Commission, Alan Randell, said. "Now, any country, regulatory body or other organization or individual will be able to compare the risk assessments of a given food derived from biotechnology with the assessments done by other countries,” he added.
"The Commission made some very important decisions for food safety. The most important of these was to extend food safety systems to small and medium-sized enterprises, especially in developing countries. This will help these small businesses produce safe food for consumers and improve their prospects for trade," he said.
The guidelines – on food safety, not environmental risks – lay out broad general principles to make analysis and management of risks related to foods derived from biotechnology uniform across Codex's 169 member countries and include pre-market safety evaluations, product tracing for recall purposes and post-market monitoring.
They cover the scientific assessment of DNA-modified plants, such as maize, soya or potatoes, and foods and beverages derived from DNA-modified micro-organisms, including cheese, yoghurt and beer, and include provisions for assessing a product's allergenicity, determining if the product may provoke unexpected allergies in consumers.
The Commission adopted a new standard for irradiated foods that accepts higher levels of gamma rays to kill bacteria and increase shelf life. It determined that such levels would eliminate bacterial spores and the radiation resistant pathogenic bacteria Clostridium botulinum, and also reduce the need to use more toxic chemical methods of combating bacteria, some of which can be harmful to the environment.
The Commission also adopted new quality standards for many food items. For example, consumers will soon note that the amount of cocoa in chocolate and chocolate products will determine when the term "chocolate" can be used. The new standard sets a minimum 35 per cent of cocoa solids in products marketed as "chocolate" and a minimum 20 per cent in "chocolate type" products, such as "chocolate flakes". The new standard requires the minimum cocoa content to be clearly marked on the packaging of all chocolate flavoured products.
The Commission’s session, its 26th, was attended by delegates from 127 member countries, the most ever to attend a Codex meeting.