New & Updated Food Code Standards Adopted For Pesticide Residues, Food Additives & Vegetable Oils

New maximum residue limits for more than 30 different types of pesticides in animal feed and foodstuffs, updated standards for food additives, and a new standard for high value vegetable oils, and well as for hybrid varieties of palm oil, were approved today at the 42nd meeting of the Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC42), the UN member state body that sets international food safety standards guiding the world food trade as well as significant national legislation.

Closing a week-long session in Geneva, delegates from some 100 countries also agreed to a code of practice for reducing chemical contaminants common to palm oil production, as well as to launch new work on allergen labeling, e-commerce, aflatoxins in cereals and cereal-based products, and bio-pesticides, among other topics.

42nd meeting of the Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC42), Geneva

The Commission also agreed to develop guidelines for the control of Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli (STEC) in beef meat, leafy greens, raw milk and cheese produced from raw milk, and sprouts (sprouted seeds). While most E. coli bacteria living in human and animal intestines are harmless, those producing shiga toxin (STEC) are an important cause of foodborne disease, and infections. WHO estimates that Shiga toxin E. Coli caused about 1 million cases of illness In 2010, ranging from mild diarrhoea to kidney failure.

The Commission, however, delayed the final adoption of a standard for maximum levels of cadmium in certain cocoa products of .3 mg/kilogram – due to controversies between member states about whether the proposed standard was high enough – or higher than required – to protect public health. Some delegates noted that the standard for cadmium levels is even higher in grains and rice (.4 mg/kg), which are far more heavily consumed. Cadmium, a heavy metal, is naturally-occurring in some soils, and its presence in areas of cocoa cultivation has posed a barrier to international sales for some countries, particularly in Africa.

In 2015, WHO estimated that over 420,000 people every year die from foodborne diseases, and almost 30 percent of those deaths are in children under the age of 5. The report, which considered diseases and deaths caused by some 31 agents – bacteria, viruses, parasites, toxins and chemicals – found that almost 10 percent of the world’s population fall ill from some form of foodborne contamination every year. The risks are most severe in low- and middle-income countries, where unsafe water and sanitation, and poor hygiene conditions in food production, storage and preparation, as well as weak regulatory systems, all contribute to food safety risks, said WHO.

The Codex Alimentarius (Food Code), established in 1963, is jointly administered by WHO and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). While the Codex standards are voluntary, in principle, the World Trade Organization (WTO) agreement on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS) refers to the Codex as a benchmark reference for international food trade. So along with country delegations, industry and some civil society representatives regularly attend the annual Codex Commission meetings, insofar as Commission decisions will have far-reaching impacts of what foods can be internationally traded, how and where.

Balancing Health and Trade 

Short of standards, the Codex also is active in creating codes of practice, which can provide guidance for reducing key health risks. One example is new work to get underway in the area of aflatoxins in cereals, particularly children’s cereal preparations. There is emerging evidence that such aflatoxins, poisonous substances produced by some forms of mold, can play a role in childhood malnutrition and stunting, said Sarah Cahill, a senior food standards officer with the joint FAO/WHO Food Standards Programme that supports the work of the Commission. “We know it is a carcinogen and that is why we have been regulating it for many years. But we now have new data emerging, and we are seeing that it is contributing to stunting in children. So the consequences of having these contaminants in foods are really far reaching.”

The new work would build on existing codes and standards to provide guidance on good harvest and storage practices – a stage where contamination can become very widespread. It will focus on maize, rice, semolina, sorghum, and cereal-based foods for infants and young children, Cahill said.

Placing pheromone lures in a citrus orchard near Agadir, Morocco, as a bio-pesticide strategy to prevent and control medfly and Ceratitis Capitatata pests.

Another emerging area is in the regulation of “bio-pesticides,” biological alternatives to traditional chemical pesticides, which are increasingly being used in integrated pest management and organic agriculture.

Bio-pesticides may include so-called “beneficial” bacteria, insects, fungi or other biological tools that attack a plant’s pests. Proponents say that these can offer healthier alternatives to conventional chemical compounds, to which farm-workers may be heavily exposed and which leave residues on foods. But little formal assessment has in fact been conduced into the health impacts of bio-pesticides, and regulation is inconsistent between countries. “We don’t have a harmonised regulatory approach when it comes to food safety. This work is trying to develop a framework by which we could approve the use of these in a harmonised way, and understand if there are any implications for human health,” said Cahill.

While much of the Commission’s work is aimed at assessing and limiting risks to health, in other areas, setting standards can help spur trade of both high value and healthier foods. The new standard adopted by the Codex Commission for quality and food safety of almond, flaxseed, hazelnut, pistachio and walnut oils may do just that.

The oils are some of the oldest types of edible oil consumed by humankind and have been traditionally produced and consumed in Middle Eastern countries, Africa, Europe and South America, notes the CODEX news portal, in a summary of today’s final decisions. “The oils are sought as healthy options due to their essential fatty acid and micronutrient content. This standard sets quality and as well as food safety criteria for these edible oils to facilitate international trade.”

Said Cahill, “These are high value, but low volume oils,” in terms of total amounts traded. As a result of the price they can command, such products are also vulnerable to fraudulent marketing claims. “The idea was to set a commodity standard that would identify the key characteristics of these oils in trade, so that if you are buying oil, you know it meets these standards.”

Such a standard, she noted, is “very important for developing countries in the Middle East, which produce a lot of these oils. It ensures that they can direct their industry in terms of the quality standards that they need to meet and facilitate their access to other markets.”

Image Credits: FAO/Bob Scott, FAO.

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