India’s upcoming foreign trade policy may consider integration of Codex practices on mass scale

Published: September 24, 2019 12:44:43 AM

Harmonisation can only be attained when all countries adopt same standards. The General Principles of the Codex Alimentarius specify the ways in which member countries may “accept” Codex standards.

This incident signalled that harmonisation of food safety standards is indispensable for spurring food trade globally in an eloquent atmosphere. This incident signalled that harmonisation of food safety standards is indispensable for spurring food trade globally in an eloquent atmosphere. This incident signalled that harmonisation of food safety standards is indispensable for spurring food trade globally in an eloquent atmosphere.

By Abhishek Jha & Seema Bathla

The latest WTO’s Monitoring Report on G20 trade measures shows that the coverage of new import-restrictive measures introduced during October 2018 to May 2019 is more than 3.5 times the average since May 2012. These measures considerably affected trade coverage worth $335.9 billion during October 2018 to May 2019. It is observed that in case of trade in food and beverages, countries, mostly the developed, are becoming over-sensitive, perhaps due to stringent quality and safety standards.

The WTO Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS) sets out the basic framework and standards for food safety, animal and plant health standards. While giving a platform to countries for framing own standards, it notes that regulations must be justified through science, i.e. regulations should be implemented only to the extent necessary to protect the animal, human or plant life or health, and also not unjustifiably discriminate between countries where identical or similar conditions prevail. Although member countries are encouraged to use international standards, guidelines and recommendations, they may use measures that result in higher standards if there is a requisite scientific justification. Besides, they can set higher standards based on an appropriate assessment of risks so long as the approach is consistent, not arbitrary.

The question, however, is which standards are practised globally in terms of implementing food safety? Is it the Codex standards or individual country’s standards? One must recall the acrimonious saga of 1989-90 when the EU banned beef import from the US due to the quality of hormones of beef. This incident signalled that harmonisation of food safety standards is indispensable for spurring food trade globally in an eloquent atmosphere. When the WTO was set up in 1995, 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 referred under the SPS agreement for practising and designing trade polices as these are scientifically justified. The Codex process involves broad international input and sound scientific support from expert panels. Codex food safety standards thus guide countries in adoption of national food safety standards and regulations that protect public health within their respective territories and promote fair practices in food trade. Ironically, even today, economies digress from the Codex standards.

Till date, 188 countries are Codex members (187 countries, and the EU as a group) that participate annually to discuss food safety issues and methods to adapt them unanimously. To illustrate, the maximum residual limits (MRL) of carbendazim in orange juice is different for each country. In Canada, it is 500-600 (parts per billion, ppb), in the EU 100-700 ppb, and in the US barely 10 ppb. Apparently, the US gives justification for this to ensure a continued safety of orange juice that is fit for human consumption. This, in a way, is an articulation of divergence from Codex standards and proliferates barriers for developing and less developed countries aspiring to export. Maintaining and satisfying each country’s food safety standards have become a costly affair and also ambiguous for member countries. During early 2000s, the African economies lost sizeable exports worth $670 million to the EU due to strict aflatoxin MRL acceptability. The risk on human health due to this strict food safety measure was estimated at 1.4 deaths per billion in a year.

This is something each member country has to work out, otherwise agricultural trade will continue to experience a protectionist wave. Harmonisation of food standards is commonly viewed as a prerequisite to the safety of consumer health and to allow the fullest possible facilitation of international trade.

Harmonisation can only be attained when all countries adopt same standards. The General Principles of the Codex Alimentarius specify the ways in which member countries may “accept” Codex standards.

The emerging interests in all Codex activities do indicate a global acceptance of the Codex philosophy, embracing harmonisation, consumer protection and facilitation of international trade. However, in practice, it is difficult for many countries to accept such standards in the statutory sense. Differing legal formats and administrative procedures, varying political systems and sometimes a growing influence of national attitudes and concepts of sovereign rights impede the progress of harmonisation and hence deter acceptance of Codex standards.

Notwithstanding these, the process of harmonisation is gaining stimulus by virtue of strong international desire to facilitate international trade. Countries are increasingly 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 case of additives, contaminants and residues.

Policymakers need to address and solve the challenge of implementing holistic approaches and constructing bridges between different disciplines as well as different sectors, including agriculture, environment, public health, tourism and commerce/trade. This is of special importance with changing consumer behaviour and international travel in addition to trade taking place at all levels in the food chain. Often, non-transparent international supply networks make it difficult to track the origin of all commodities and ingredients used in food products. Respective governments have a crucial role to play in adopting the vision for developing and facilitating implementation of national good agricultural practice (GAP) standards that are consistent, germane with international requirements, and adapt to local policies and environment. The public sector in tandem with support from the private sector can be instrumental in delivering the skills and infrastructure required for maintaining the safety and level of quality in the agri-food chain. India’s upcoming five-year foreign trade policy 2020-25 can consider the integration of Codex practices on a mass scale.

Jha is consultant at the Trade Promotion Council of India; Bathla is professor, Centre for the Study of Regional Development, JNU, Delhi

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