Centre for Science in the Public Interest

For the Record

For Immediate Release:
April 29, 2003

For more information:
Bill Jeffery, CSPI's National Coordinator,
at (613) 244-7337; or
Bruce Silverglade (President, IACFO): (202) 332-9110.

   Consumer Group Urges UN Committee to Call for Improved Food Labelling
OTTAWA, CANADA (April 29, 2003) - The Centre for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) is calling on a committee of the UN World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization meeting in Ottawa this week to improve international food labelling standards to facilitate national nutrition promotion efforts and prevent consumer fraud. Improved standards would permit and encourage governments to require companies to provide consumers with better information on ingredients, nutritional values, and processing methods.

The UN Codex Alimentarius Commission’s (Codex) Committee on Food Labelling develops international rules used by the World Trade Organization (WTO) to settle trade disputes. National laws that exceed Codex health and consumer protection standards, without justification deemed acceptable by the WTO, can be declared illegal barriers to trade.

“Codex standards can act as a ’ceiling, not a floor,’“ stated Bill Jeffery, National Coordinator for Canada of the Centre for Science in the Public Interest. “So, international standards must be set high to allow governments to issue consumer protection rules without fear of being challenged at the WTO. Yet all too often, multinational food companies pressure governments to base international standards on the lowest common denominator.“

The meeting of the Codex Committee will be attended by delegates from more than 30 countries. The agenda includes setting standards for the labelling of:

  • Percentages of major ingredients of processed foods (a matter taken up by the Committee at the urging of IACFO);
  • Genetically engineered foods;
  • Organic food;
  • Information (like amounts of fat, calories, sugars, etc.) that must be disclosed when manufacturers make nutrition claims; and
  • Health-related marketing claims.

IACFO is specifically calling on the Codex Committee to set standards that would encourage governments to require percentage ingredient labelling for major ingredients in processed foods -- especially ingredients that significantly affect health, such as vegetables, fruit, whole grains, beans, and added sugars.

“We hope that the delegations will make these trade rules more responsive to public health imperatives,“ said Jeffery. The World Health Organization’s March 2003 expert report Diet, nutrition, and the prevention of chronic disease details the world-wide human and toll of disease related to diet and physical inactivity and calls on governments and industry to address the problem through new public policy initiatives.

Among its findings, the report summarized scientific evidence concerning the relationship between chronic diseases and 14 classes of foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and added sugars. Currently, the European Union, Australia, New Zealand, and Thailand have laws requiring some percentage ingredient labelling on the books that probably exceed the level of consumer protection permissible under the Codex standards. Consumer groups are pressing the Committee to adopt a broader international percentage ingredient declaration standard that would allow those laws to remain in effect without fear of being challenged as illegal trade barriers at the WTO,“ Jeffery said. Since last year’s meeting, the Canadian government announced plans to enact limited national percentage ingredient rules.

CSPI, as a member of the official observer International Association of Consumer Food Organizations (IACFO), will be urging the Committee to set standards that encourage governments to mandate nutrition information on all foods, require appropriate labelling of genetically engineered foods, and establish strict pre-market approvals for health claims.

The Canadian Government recently finalized rules to require full nutrition facts on most packaged foods, thereby joining the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Israel, Brazil, and several other countries that have established or proposed mandatory nutrition label programs. The Codex Committee, however, is merely considering nutrition labelling when companies make nutrition-related claims. This arrangement could leave national mandatory rules vulnerable to attack as trade barriers.

NOTE TO EDITORS: The Codex Committee on Food Labelling will meet in full session at the Ottawa Congress Centre (55 Colonel By Drive) April 28-May 2, 2003, excluding Thursday. The meeting agenda can be seen at: http://www.codexalimentarius.net/ccfl31/fl03_01e.htm.

CSPI is a member of the International Association of Consumer Food Organizations (IACFO), an alliance of independent, non-profit consumer food groups with members in the United States, Korea, Japan and the United Kingdom, as well as Canada. IACFO is an officially recognized non-governmental observer at the United Nation’s Codex Alimentarius Commission (a body that sets standards for international trade in food). Visit IACFO on the World Wide Web at: http://www.cspinet.org/reports/codex/iacfosum.html.

CSPI Canada