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UN agencies report progress in work on worldwide standards for biotech foods

UN agencies report progress in work on worldwide standards for biotech foods

A joint intergovernmental body of the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) today announced significant progress in setting standards for foods derived from biotechnology.

The announcement was made in a statement released in Rome by a WHO/FAO task force charged with developing international standards for food safety and consumer protection. Known as the "Codex Alimentarius Commission's Ad Hoc Intergovernmental Task Force on Foods Derived from Biotechnology," the group brings together officials from 35 countries and representatives of 24 non-governmental organizations, including Consumers International, industry groups and Greenpeace.

With some 210 experts and officials attending the session in Tokyo from 25 to 29 March, the Task Force reached near consensus on a draft text of "general principles for risk analysis of foods derived from biotechnology." Risk analysis is the system by which governments consider the safety of foods and the measures that need to be taken to protect the public from health risks. The guidelines do not cover environmental issues because these are included in other UN agreements.

The one point on which consensus could not be achieved was the question of traceability, the agencies said, referring to a system of tracing all foods and food components from their origin to the point of final consumption. Traceability was strongly favoured by European States, but some countries worried that the system might be too complex and costly to operate globally.

Established in 1962 to implement the joint FAO/WHO Foods Standards Programme, the Codex Alimentarius Commission is an intergovernmental statutory body with a 165-country membership. Its purpose is to protect the health of consumers, to ensure fair practices in food trade and to promote coordination of all food standards work undertaken by international governmental and non-governmental organizations. The ad hoc Task Force was set up in 1999 and is hosted by Japan.