Centre for Science in the Public Interest

For the Record

For Immediate Release:
May 2, 2002

For more information:
Bill Jeffery

   International Consumer Coalition Urges UN Committee to Call for Improved Food Labelling

OTTAWA (May 2, 2002) - The International Association of Consumer Food Organizations (IACFO) is calling on a committee of the UN World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization, meeting in Halifax, Canada May 6-10, to improve international food labelling standards. Improved standards would 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, a founding member of IACFO. “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 nearly 300 delegates from more than 40 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 livestock products;
  • Nutrition information, including the amounts of saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, sugars, and fibre 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. IACFO had previously released a detailed report on the subject (available on the World Wide Web at www.cspinet.org/reports/codex/QUID.html).

     “We hope that delegations from the European Union, Australia, New Zealand, and Thailand, which already have percentage ingredient labelling laws on the books, will support a Codex standard that would allow those laws to remain in effect without fear of being challenged as trade barriers at the WTO,” Jeffery said.

     IACFO is also calling on the Committee to issue standards that would encourage governments to require mandatory nutrition information on all foods, require appropriate labelling of genetically engineered foods, and establish strict pre-market approval requirements for health claims.

     “It’s ridiculous that a candy bar in Australia discloses the percentage of chocolate contained in the product, in the United States discloses the amount of saturated fat, and in Europe would be required to disclose if it contained any genetically engineered ingredients,” said Bruce Silverglade, President of IACFO. “Consumers around the world should receive the same information on food labels.”

     Health Canada recently announced plans to require comprehensive nutrition labelling for most foods sold in retail stores (similar to rules in place in the US since 1994). The Codex Committee, however, is merely considering nutrition labelling when companies make nutrition related claims. This step would leave North American rules vulnerable to attack by other nations as trade barriers.

     Both Canada and the US have failed to support stronger Codex standards for percentage ingredient labelling, though it is already required by the European Union, Australia, New Zealand, and Thailand.

IACFO is an alliance of independent, non-profit consumer food organizations including the Centre for Science in the Public Interest (with offices in Ottawa and Washington, D.C.), the Food Commission (UK), the Tokyo-based Japan Offspring Fund, and the Consumers Association of Singapore. IACFO is an officially recognized non-governmental observer at Codex meetings. Visit IACFO on the World Wide Web at www.cspinet.org/reports/codex/iacfosum.html .

NOTE TO EDITORS: The Codex Committee on Food Labelling will meet in full session at the Halifax World Trade and Convention Centre (1800 Argyle St., Halifax, Canada) from May 6-10, 2002.

CSPI Canada