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What is Codex?

Codex Alimentarius
In the early 1960s, two United Nations organizations, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO), established Codex Alimentarius (Codex). The stated purpose of Codex Alimentarius (Latin for “Food Code”) is to establish a set of international standards for food quality and safety to protect the health of consumers and ensure fair practices in the international food trade.

Codex Ruling Body
The Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC) is the top level body that oversees all Codex activities. Delegations from the 172 member countries meet annually in alternate years at FAO headquarters in Rome and at WHO headquarters in Geneva. A country’s delegation at a Codex session must be led by a government official or employee of that country. It is this individual who controls who speaks for that delegation.

Each country has one vote, which is cast by its chief delegate. However, the Codex Procedural Manual dictates that consensus, not voting, is the preferred method for approving changes. The Codex definition of consensus was clarified in 2004, but implementation of this is not uniform among all Codex session chairs.

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) may also attend Codex sessions. Although such organizations may express their opinions, these viewpoints are not weighed in the final decisions.

While Codex reserves the right to hold sessions in secret, sessions are normally open. An individual not part of a country or NGO delegation may attend a Codex session as an observer, but observers are never allowed to speak to the assembly.

Unsanctioned photos, filming and/or recording of a Codex session are prohibited. This prohibition is strictly enforced.

Codex Committees
The CAC assigns projects to Codex committees, which meet annually to draft the requested standards, guidelines, and recommendations. Most committees are hosted by a member country, which is responsible for the cost of the committee’s maintenance and administration and for providing its chairperson.

A trade standard being drafted goes through up to eight formal steps before it is sent on to the CAC for finalization and activation. This process often takes many years.

Traditionally Codex “standards” were considered mandatory regulations, while “guidelines” were optional suggestions. Because Codex does not have power to enforce the trade standards it develops, acceptance of standards and guidelines by member countries was not an issue.

Everything changed in 1995 when the World Trade Organization (WTO) was created. Each country joining the WTO had to commit to abide by all WTO trade regulation agreements and international trade standards. This included granting the WTO the authority to enforcement trade dispute decisions coming out of the WTO Dispute Settlement Process by imposing compulsory trade sanctions against the losing country. As a result of Codex’s designation as the body for setting food-related international trade standards and the WTO’s stance that it would not differentiate between Codex standards, guidelines, and recommendations, all Codex documents (standards, guidelines, and recommendations) became elevated to mandatory international trade standards enforceable by the WTO.

For more in-depth information on Codex Alimentarius visit the official Codex site at Check out “Understanding Codex.” The actual CAC policies and procedures are in the “Codex Alimentarius Commission, 22nd Procedural Manual

Now that you have a general understanding about Codex Alimentarius, click here to move on to Codex and Dietary Supplements.

This website was restructured in June 2005. This specific page was last updated September 2014.

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