Exclusive Discussion with Ex-Chairperson of Codex Alimentarius
One nation one food standard was the message that emerged from a day conference held by Nestlé Pakistan in collaboration with the Pakistan Council of Scientific & Industrial Research under the Ministry of Science and Technology. This national conference, ‘Food Safety and Harmonization: shaping a Healthier Nation’ on November 22, 2017, in Serena Hotel Islamabad was widely attended by food industry executives, academic and policymakers from the federal government.
The speakers and the participants – that had joined in from all across the country- actively debated issues of food safety, and need for harmonization of food standards nationally and internationally by following regulations set down by “Codex Alimentarius”. Federal Minister for Defense Production, Rana Tanveer Hussain, (who has been ex-minister of Science of Technology) criticized the provincial food authorities that had been created after the 18th Amendment over an issue as crucial as food standards. He noted that food standards are directly related to food safety and these are crucial to people health. He appreciated the importance of the food industry in the role of the country’s economy.
Background to the Conference
After the 18th Amendment, Pakistan has devolved food “standards” to provinces. This earlier was under the remit of the PSQA (Pakistan Standards and Quality Control Authority), that was responsible for ensuring that national standards meet necessary global standards. After the 18th amendment, every province has set up their own regulatory bodies, that are not only implementing standards but also setting them. These provincial standards often clash with standards set by the central government. After Punjab, now KP and Sindh have set up their own regulatory bodies. The issue is an alarming one food companies that fear rise in transactional costs and immense challenges in terms of export markets.
The keynote address at the conference was delivered by the outgoing chairperson of the Codex Alimentarius, Ms. Awilo Ochieng. Codex Allimentarius Commission (CAC) is an inter-governmental body, jointly set by Food & Agricultural Organization (FAO) of United Nations and World Health Organization (WHO) in 1963. CAC sets up international standards for food production and trade based on scientific advice. Ms. Ochieng, at the Islamabad conference, emphasized the importance of harmonized standards in countries in order to ensure easy trade with other countries as well as ensuring ample and good quality food supply within countries. She emphasized that Codex standards within countries stood for inclusive health, wealth and growth for all the population.
Ms. Awilo has been involved in international food safety, quality and nutrition issues since 1999, having led various commissions within the organization. She forcefully campaigned for the setting up of the World Food Safety Day (WFSD) from 2015 onwards; in 2017, UN General Assembly finally legislated that “7th June” would be declared “Annual World Food Safety Day.” She has studied law, human nutrition and has worked on international food regulatory affairs.
GVS Exclusive Discussion with Ex-President Codex Alimentarius
Najma Minhas, Managing Editor, Global Village Space (GVS) sat down with Ms. Ochieng to understand better the importance of codex food standards and how it helped developing countries.
GVS: You are the outgoing chairperson for the Codex Alimentarius. What does Codex Alimentarius actually do?
Mrs. Ocheing: Codex Alimentarius Commission is an international UN organization, which was established in 1963 by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Health Organization (WHO) to develop harmonized international food safety standards to protect the health of the consumers to ensure fair practices in the food trade. We develop standards, codes of practice and guidelines which should be implemented all along the food chain to ensure that food which is sold to consumers is safe.
GVS: What are the challenges you face for food harmonization standards and is it important for countries to have harmonized national food standards?
Mrs. Ocheing: It is very important for countries to harmonize their national laws with Codex Standards because our standards are based on science in a sense that Codex Alimentarius has the benefit of having the WTO and WHO certificate bodies who do the risk assessment and provide scientific results or advice which is the basis for the Codex Standards. So, with all that background work and homework done, each country is in an advantageous position to adopt the Codex Standards because you have all the science behind you.
GVS: What kind of health issues have these standards been able to resolve?
Mrs. Ocheing: I would say, for example, one of the most important is food hygiene. The general principles on food hygiene, I think are universal. But, you can see that how they have been integrated into national law and how the authorities ask all the stakeholders to apply them have really contributed to ensuring the safe food. Of course, there is work to be done in both developed and developing countries and we always have to remain vigilant, and not to be complacent by saying I know it all and everything is under control because you never know when the next crises will arise.
I would also like to talk about labeling. Labelling is also something consumers have tremendously benefited from. So, that Codex Alimentarius commission developed the general standard for the labeling of pre-packaged food and you will find that the labeling requirements which are stated in the general standard are applied everywhere. Here at the conference/seminar, we have the water, which is on the table. If you look at the presentation of the product, it complies with the Codex Standard. Because authorities in Pakistan adopted that Codex Alimentarius’s labeling standards and guidelines or recommendations in the national standard. And they obliged to label the products in a certain way and this way it also conforms to Codex Standards.
GVS: Are you advocating that packaged food is actually better than non-packaged food?
Mrs. Ocheing: No, I would not say such a thing. Because, they are different products.
GVS: But, you are saying that certain standards have to be met when you label food versus no standards technically. What if someone offers you an apple?
Mrs. Ocheing: No, certainly not, this is not what I meant. I just said that for consumers in whichever country. I am from Switzerland so I can read that label and can almost identify that this is what we have in Switzerland. Because this labeling provision is similar to what Codex has set out. And you will find this when you will travel around the world. So, for us consumers, it makes our life easier because we are used to a certain way of presenting the product.
But coming back to the fresh products, Codex has a committee on fresh food and vegetables. Now, they have developed the standards for example for apples, and they say, this is class 1 and class 2. In spite of the quality, you know, all the apples across the board have to be safe.
GVS: What are the issues that are concerning developed countries more than the developing countries, where food scarcity is an issue for example? How does the Codex regulations/standards and harmonization help in food scarcity or reduce food scarcity?
Mrs. Ocheing: You know during the discussions today, I realized that there is much confusion over the relative importance of the two. In my opinion, you cannot separate them. Because, you cannot ensure food security like feeding the people without having safe food. Because, if I am hungry and you give me a product that is not safe, that product is not going to nourish me. Food is supposed to nourish. It is supposed to feed. It is supposed to help you develop and grow. In order to ensure that people do not suffer from food security issues, the food has to be safe.
And there are so many codes of practice that our (Codex) commission has developed, which can also ensure a reduction in the food loss. This is the food which is lost because production does not meet standards. Also during the production stage and the way it is handled, the whole process leads to a lot of contamination and loss. Maybe when it is harvested, it is still safe and then it is stored in a way that is unsafe and then it becomes contaminated. Here, the issue will be that if it goes to the market – as we heard today – it will be rejected if it is a regulated market. But that farmer or producer is not going to lose his food. What he is going to do is, that he is going to take it to the grey market and sell it. This food is going to be consumed by the poor consumers and it will lead to foodborne diseases. So, I would really argue and plead for the implementation of these codes of practice across the board on a day-to-day basis because, it is not about only having access to the international market but you also need to protect consumers of the domestic market.
GVS: So, this harmonization process, you say that it increases the trade between countries. How does it help to do that?
Mrs. Ocheing: Yes, in order for your food to have access to the markets it has to be safe. I will give you an example of the EU, which is one of the biggest trading partners in the world. All the countries want to export to the EU, because of a very big and lucrative market. So, they have controls at the borders. Let’s say you export your product from country A and it reaches the border and they do the border control analysis of the product. They will analyze and take samples, if the vegetable contains heavy metals, or they find that your food does not comply, for example, it contains pesticides/residues, which are beyond the health limits and or it contains unauthorized products, it will be rejected.
GVS: For a country like Pakistan, if we follow the Codex laws, will it make it easy for us to export worldwide?
Mrs. Ocheing: Absolutely, if Codex laws are integrated into your national legislation and are then being applied/implemented by all the stakeholders, it will make a difference. If you have this law integrated into your national legislation, even if it is written using gold or wonderful paper, but if it is just put on a shelf without it being implemented, it won’t serve any purpose.
GVS: What about for example, with Pakistan, after the 18th amendment we now have lot of food authorities being set up in different provinces who are setting up their own laws. If these laws stick to Codex, is that a positive thing?
Mrs. Ocheing: I come from a country [Switzerland] which is also a confederation having 26 cantons. But, we have only one federal law. You see, because the government would like the protection of the consumers in Switzerland, and all the people who come to Switzerland. Otherwise, you would have a fragmented set up where you will have 26 different laws, which if you are lucky are all saying the same thing. However, it’s more likely they will be contradicting each other and it will be absolutely impossible to trade even within the country. How are you going to trade from territory A to territory B, if one territory is saying that the requirement is one milligram per kg and next one is saying 2 milligram per kg and the other one is saying its 3 milligram per kg. It becomes very difficult to implement. I don’t think it really serves the purpose, ultimately the loser is the consumer.
GVS: Is there any place in the world that does it that way or is it generally the direction the world is taking that you make the laws at federal level and they are implemented at any state or provisional level?
Mrs. Ocheing: I would say there is a drive or tendency to have a uniform application of the laws across the country. In Switzerland the enforcement is done by canton authorities you see because federal authorities cannot be there. These states are independent so you have one common law, which should be applied in a uniform manner across the country and one kind of enforcement control to see whether you are producing according to the law. That enforcement would be done by the canton authorities. That’s how I see the situation here in Pakistan should be. But of course, I don’t know Pakistan that well.
GVS: How do the Codex standards fit in with (Social development goals) SDG’s?
Mrs. Ocheing: As I said food safety is at the heart of realization of various goals: zero hunger, poverty reduction, health. Without food, you cannot achieve these objectives. I did a short study for myself, I think there were more than 7-10 goals. Codex is directly related to those codes including economic development as we said, if we have safe food, you can have access to markets, but you can also innovate, you can have food industry, and education. When children are fed well, they will perform better in school. So, Codex at the heart of SDG’s I would say?
GVS: You also campaigned to set up an awareness day on Food Safety. ‘World food safety day’ is now to be established on 7th June. Do you think, it will make difference to harmonization and countries understanding the importance of food safety?
Mrs. Ocheing: Yes, absolutely. We need to raise awareness about food safety. How it contributes to all the goals we’ve been talking about, how food safety is crucial to ensuring food security, to ensure nutrition and health and these aspects. It’s a wonderful opportunity for the world’s safety because we take it for granted that everybody knows about food safety. You’ll be amazed that people don’t know much in developed countries – just like the developing countries. So we need to raise awareness and promote food safety and education; and enhance the skills of consumers, producers and food handlers. And I think we should focus on the children and make sure they learn basic hygiene principles and we should also think about the consumers. WHO has developed five keys to safer food which I’ve seen now in several countries. They’ve integrated them in their food safety campaigns. Firstly, people should wash their hands but some can’t even remember that and secondly they should be able to differentiate between what is raw from what is cooked and keep food at safe temperatures.