Why are Codex Guidelines now Standards?
By Suzan Walter, M.B.A.

Also, review the October 2004 "Open Letter to CCNFSDU Delegates"

When you ask whether the "Proposed Draft of Guidelines for Vitamin and Mineral Supplements" is going to be a set of optional Guidelines or a mandatory Codex international trade Standard you find people with very firm convictions supporting both options. And these divergent views are held by members of the Codex Committee on Nutrition and Foods for Special Dietary Uses who are developing this important Codex text.

I thought it would be a fairly simple process to just check the official rules and regulations that govern the Codex Alimentarius and figure out who is right. After studying a number of Codex reports, I discovered that advisory Codex documents (referred to as texts) are not officially defined by Codex. Codex has accepted the WTO position of no differentiation between different categories of Codex texts. This indicates that the Guidelines for Vitamin and Mineral Supplements text will be implemented as a Standard, despite being "labeled" as Guidelines.

Below I share with you a quick overview of what I found in Codex reports that supports these statements. For those interested in details, the actual reports are identified at the end of this screen, along with related quotes.

The first official Codex authority I studied was the Codex Alimentarius Procedural Manual, which provides extensive procedures for the creation of Standards. There are only a few references to advisory type texts, and none of these include a definition of advisory texts, how they are to be used, or how much clout they have.

Next I collected and reviewed a number of reports from the Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC) and various Codex Committees. These showed that until 1997 Codex Standards and other types of texts had been classified on the basis of whether or not the texts were intended to be subject to the Codex Acceptance Procedures. If a text was subject to the Acceptance Procedures, it was termed "mandatory." If not, it was viewed as an "advisory" text.

In the mid-90s the CAC signed the SPS and TBT Agreements with the World Trade Organization (WTO). These Agreements are significant because Codex develops standards that are used by the WTO to regulate international trade. As the terms of these Agreements were clarified it revealed that:

  • The WTO does not differentiate the different types of Codex texts.
  • The WTO does not differentiate the different levels of Codex acceptance.

The first finding influenced the CAC to declare that their old approach of classifying texts by Codex Acceptance Procedures was confusing and not consistent with the provisions of the SPS and TBT Agreements and should no longer be used. They further decided that their development of a set of statements explaining the intent of different types of Codex texts was unnecessary. They would recognize the WTO approach, which views standards and advisory texts as the same.

Further indication of this can be found in the 1998 report of the Codex Committee on General Principles. When asked to clarify Guidelines (one type of advisory text), the Committee stated "There are two basic groups of Codex texts known as 'Guidelines'. Those in the first group expand upon, interpret or provide information of the application of other Codex standards or texts; those in the second group are in the form of standards and could be used as such."

I am still researching the official interpretations of the second statement. If the WTO is the enforcement body for Codex Standards, and WTO does not differentiate between the three Codex Acceptance options, this could significantly impact the sovereign rights of countries beyond what they have authorized.

The WTO clarification to Codex made a statement "...how a Codex text was applied depended on its substantive content rather than the category of that text." If the Codex Alimentarius Commission adopts this approach, then a text intended to be truly advisory might be designated for that purpose by including very specific language within the document.

With this in mind, I strongly encourage anyone on a committee drafting any form of Codex advisory text to be aware of the need to indicate the intended purpose, scope and implementation within the document. This is particularly important for the members of the Committee drafting the Guidelines for Vitamin and Mineral Supplements.


Suzan Walter, M.B.A. is co-founder and current president of the American Holistic Health Association, and served as president of the American Holistic Medical Foundation from 1988 - 1990. She is creator and webmaster of the Codex Information site codexinfo.org. Her private consulting practice specializes in health and wellness-related projects on the Internet. Suzan can be contacted at (714) 779-6152 or codex@ahha.org.


Below are listed the various Codex and WTO documents that were helpful in researching this subject. Where possible, an online source for the actual document or a summary is provided.

Sincere acknowledgement and appreciation to Alan Randell of the Codex Alimentarius Rome office for selecting and providing several relevant reports.

Additional documentation providing further clarification of this subject would be welcomed.

This page was last updated October 10, 2002.

CODEX ALIMENTARIUS PROCEDURAL MANUAL (English Version)
Full text of Procedural Manual ftp://ftp.fao.org/codex/manual/Manual12ce.pdf
Advisory texts are referenced in three locations:
In General Principles of the Codex Alimentarius section
http://www.fao.org/DOCREP/005/Y2200E/y2200e05.htm#bm05
"Purpose of the Codex Alimentaruis
1. The Codex Alimentarius is a collection of internationally adopted food standards presented in a uniform manner. These food standards aim at protecting consumers' health and ensuring fair practices in the food trade. The Codex Alimentarius also includes provisions of an advisory nature in the form of codes of practice, guidelines and other recommended measures intended to assist in achieving the purposes of the Codex Almentarius..."

"Scope of the Codex Alimentarius
2. The Codex Alimentarius includes standards for all the principle foods... It also includes provisions of an advisory nature in the form of codes of practice, guidelines and other recommended measures."

In Procedures for the Elaboration of Codex Standards and Related Texts section
http://www.fao.org/DOCREP/005/Y2200E/y2200e04.htm#bm04
"Note: Throughout this text the word 'Standard' is meant to include any of the recommendations of the Commission intended to be submitted to Governments for acceptance. Except for provisions relating to acceptance, the Procedures apply mutatis mutandis to codes of practice and other texts of an advisory nature."
Mutatis mutandis means "with the necessary changes" and in respect to the Procedures reference Alan Randell of the Codex Office in Rome stated "This basically means that all advisory texts will follow the same Step Procedure [as Standards], but that Part 3 'Subsequent Procedure' is largely inapplicable."


EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE OF THE CODEX ALIMENTARIUS COMMISSION,
Rome, 3-5 June 1998,
REPORT ON MATTERS RELATING TO THE IMPLEMENTATIN OF THE WTO AGREEMENT ON THE APPLICATION OF SANITARY AND PHYTOSANITARY MEASURES AND THE AGREEMENT ON TECHNICAL BARRIERS TO TRADE
Text of report with letter from WTO can be accessed by doing search at http://docsonline.wto.org/gen_search.asp Search for documents numbered 98-0462 and 98-1071. The latter is marked revision of first.
A. STATUS OF CODEX STANDARDS, GUIDELINES AND OTHER RECOMMENDATIONS
CX/EXEC 98/45/9 April 98

The 22nd CAC Session had requested the WTO Committee on Samitary and Phytosanitary Measures (the SPS Committee) to clarify how the Committee would differentiate "standards, guidelines and other recommendations" in relation to the SPS Agreement by WTO Members. The WTO letter of response dated March 1998 included
"The definition makes no distinction between standards, guidelines and recommendations. The SPS Agreement does not provide specific definitions for the terms 'standards', 'guidelines' or 'recommendations'."
"In no case do these provisions differentiate between the three terms 'standards', 'guidelines' or 'recommendations'"
"...how a Codex text was applied depended on its substantive content rather than the category of that text (eg., commodity standards, MRLs, codes of practice, guidelines)."


CODEX COMMITTEE ON GENERAL PRINCIPLES
13th Session, Paris, 7-11 September 1998
REVIEW OF THE STATUS AND OBJECTIVES OF CODEX TEXTS
Summary of highlights of report
http://www.fao.org/docrep/meeting/005/W9809E/w9809e09.htm#bm9
CX/GP 98/9 July 98

II. A. CURRENT STATUS OF CODEX STANDARDS AND RELATED TEXTS
5. includes an overview of the SPS Agreement clarifications. Some items:
"the Agreement does not differentiate between the terms 'standards', 'guidelines' or 'recommendations'."
"how a text would be applied depended on its substantive content rather than the category of that text;"

II. B. PRIOR DISTINCTIONS BETWEEN "MANDATORY" AND "ADVISORY" TEXTS
8. "Codex Standards and Related Texts had been traditionally classified on the basis of whether or not texts were intended to be subject to the Acceptance Procedures laid down in paragraphs 4,5 and 6 of the General Principles of the Codex Alimentarius. Those texts subject to the Acceptance Procedures have been termed 'mandatory' and the other texts 'advisory', but the Commission at its 22nd Session agreed that the use of these terms was confusing and not consistent with the provisions of the SPS and TBT Agreements, and stated that they should no longer be used."
12. "The Status of Codex Guidelines (other than Guideline Levels) has not been clarified by the Commission."

J. GUIDELINES
29. "There are two basic groups of Codex texts known as 'Guidelines'. Those in the first group expand upon, interpret or provide information of the application of other Codex standards or texts; those in the second group are in the form of standards and could be used as such."
Items 30-33 cover specific Guidelines and include intent.

V. CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
59. The Committee should also examine the possibility of developing a set of appropriate preambular statements explaining the intent of different types of Codex texts, as recommended by the Executive Committee.

In summary report it was stated
"In view of the reply of the SPS Committee, the Committee was of the opinion that the development of a set of preambular statements explaining the intent of the different types of Codex texts was unnecessary."

REVISION OF THE ACCEPTANCE PROCEDURE
Summary of highlights of report
http://www.fao.org/docrep/meeting/005/W9809E/w9809e08.htm#bm08.2
"The Committee recognized that the current procedures had not been used frequently and recalled that Codex standards were a reference in the framework of the WTO Agreements irrespective of acceptance. It was therefore agreed that the current procedure should be revised and updated as it was not any longer adapted to the current context, but should not be abolished."


CODEX COMMITTEE ON GENERAL PRINCIPLES 14th Session,
Paris, France, 19-23 April 1999
Online summary of highlights of report does not include the majority of the advisory text comments
http://www.fao.org/docrep/meeting/005/X1855E/x1855e08.htm#bm08
REVIEW OF THE STATUS OF CODEX TEXTS
CX/GP 99/7 March 99
STATUS OF CODEX TEXTS UNDER TBT

"The problems related to the difference between standards and other texts in relation to the SPS Agreement have been clarified by the reply from the SPS Committee. There does not seem to be difficulties to extend this principle in the framework of the TBT Agreement. As in the case of the SPS Agreement there is no difference between the various categories of Codex texts involved; for the purpose of the TBT Agreement all Codex standards and related texts correspond to the TBT definition of 'standard'."

"...distinctions based on acceptance are not relevant in the framework of WTO."

As stated in summary of report:
"As regards the status of Codex texts under the TBT Agreement, the Committee agreed that all Codex texts, including standards and their annexes, were covered by the TBT definition of 'standard', and that distinctions based on Acceptance (under the Codex Procedures) were not relevant in the framework of WTO."


SPS Agreement
AGREEMENT ON THE APPLICATION OF SANITARY AND PHYTOSANITARY MEASURES
http://www.wto.org/english/docs_e/legal_e/15sps_01_e.htm

Article 3: Harmonization

At a later date the following statement is found in a Committee report:
"...the WTO/SPS Agreement may be viewed as an interface between the tasks of the WTO and those of international technical standardization organizations, for which reason, it delegates to such organizations the technical aspects of the development and harmonization of international technical standards, guidelines and recommendations - sanitary and phytosanitary measures as defined in Annex A - establishing a set of principles and disciplines to regulate their application in international trade."


TBT Agreement
AGREEMENT ON TECHNICAL BARRIERS TO TRADE
http://www.wto.org/english/docs_e/legal_e/17-tbt_e.htm