Confusion and controversy dog the role of Codex Alimentarius, the international body responsible for setting food standards. Here, Simon Pettman, executive director of IADSA, explains how Codex operates, and the challenges that lie ahead.
Codex has been under attack in the last few months in a way it has never before experienced. The cause is the draft guideline on vitamin and mineral supplements. Advocates for freedom of vitamin therapy have sent tens of thousands of emails, held demonstrations outside Codex meetings, and set up Web sites in an attempt to prevent a proposed Codex ruling. Is all this uproar justified, and will it create a more liberal regulatory environment for marketing dietary supplements and other natural health products?
Codex Alimentarius, established by the United Nations in 1961, links 165 member countries. Its primary purpose is to ensure a fair deal for consumers by improving the quality of food products and to ensure fair and free trade in food through common standards agreements. The member countries are represented in a range of committees that discuss and develop standards, guidelines and other measures that are eventually agreed upon by the Codex Alimentarius Commission.
Currently, four key Codex initiatives directly affect the dietary supplements sector, with key implications for the functional foods sector: the draft guideline on vitamin and mineral supplements; the draft standard on additives, including those that may be used in supplements; a draft guideline for health claims that can be used for foods, including supplements; and the principles for assessing and managing risks.
A key concern looms over the validity of such discussions at an international level. In light of the industry-at-large's desire to ensure that as many consumers as possible around the world have access to its products, the logical response is that any international guidance which supports this makes sense.
Another concern is whether the current draft Codex measures will contribute to this goal. The answer to this must be vague for now, since all measures are only drafts, some with elements of great concern to the industry. The answer, therefore, depends on the outcome of discussions and the success of lobbyists to garner an appropriate worldwide regulatory framework.
The third question is whether Codex will really make a difference in markets with a liberal regulatory environment. Most likely it will not. For example, the draft Codex guideline on vitamin and mineral supplements is but an advisory document to individual governments, which are not required to introduce it into law. Codex will not restrict vitamin therapy in the US as long as the US administration has not already taken that initiative. Codex also will not restrict vitamin therapy in Germany because it is already restricted under existing German law.
The reality is that Codex exists to help many countries, particularly developing countries, create their own legislation on food. If the Codex model is a good one, it will be enacted into law in many markets across the world. If Codex legislation is restrictive, those markets may be closed or difficult to access.
For Codex Alimentarius to be successful, we need to see even greater international co-ordination on the development of positions and communication of messages relating to the benefits and safety of our products to regulators. This process has been initiated through IADSA as an accredited non-governmental organisation to Codex and should continue. Although Codex progresses slowly, the dietary supplements industry must move faster in those countries where greater education is required.
Simon Pettman is executive director of IADSA, the International Alliance of Dietary Supplements Associations, based in Brussels, Belgium. IADSA brings together 35 associations from 27 countries and is actively engaged in supporting the industry by communicating information, developing common positions and lobbying for an appropriate regulatory framework for dietary supplements. www.iadsa.org. Tel: +32 2 209 11 55 Fax: +32 2 223 30 64