World Trade Organization Codex Alimentarius and international trade

The World Trade Organization (WTO) agreement has replaced the former GATT and the standards of Codex Alimentarius have become the indisputable reference for trade in food. Most countries have adopted the rules of WTO and disputes between signatories must be settled in a WTO conciliation procedure. Such disputes have already arisen in the European Union because of its regulations on 'hormone beef' and on 'dollar bananas'. Irradiated food might become the next case. The specifications in the Codex Alimentarius Standard on Irradiated Food and its associated Code of Practice (1984) are not restricted to any class or group of food. Such specifications are presently under revision, and the upper dose limit will be removed in order to follow the latest development (World Health Organization, 1999).

The Joint FAO/WHO Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC) was created in 1962 with the intention to facilitate international trade in food by world-wide harmonisation and the Codex Alimentarius has become a collection of accepted and internationally recognised standards. With the emergence of WTO these standards have become the only technical reference; there are particular references under the agreements on Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT) and on Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) measures which are an integral part of WTO. In this situation, even the existence of any regulation that does not cover all food but restricts permission to a particular list may be considered as a TBT and a violation of the WTO rules. The SPS agreement explicitly refers to processing by ionising radiation as one of the generally acceptable tools for achieving sanitary and phy-tosanitary purposes. Only a few countries have initiated the legal procedures to convert to the new framework (as described for Brazil in section 17.13). The European Union in particular has issued directives on food irradiation that are at variance with the rules of WTO underwritten by all EU-Member States. For instance, Germany is bound by a parliamentary vote to object to and block any clearance of food irradiation beyond spices: 'We strictly object to any expansion of the (EU) "positive list" [which presently only contains spices] because we deem irradiation of any further products as unnecessary.'

As can be seen from the possible applications and from reports from many countries on their food safety and food security needs it is obvious that there is a technological need for processing food by ionising radiation. Negating such needs lacks arguments founded on sound science which is a prerequisite for regulations under WTO. Or as WHO worded it, the countries which need the new technology most would also suffer most from the resistance of developed countries. There are provisions in national regulations for imports from third countries. However, when using such rules administrative obstacles must still be overcome. The US is preparing to accept imports of irradiated fruits from its southern partners; ASEAN member states are harmonising their national regulations; many countries are joining forces to develop the standards of the Codex Alimentarius to the present state of the art. The parties to the Montreal Protocol of 1997 agreed to a phase out (2005 and 2015 for advanced and developing countries, respectively) of several fumigants, with radiation processing being the technology that will take its place. Other fumigants such as ethylene oxide are already banned in several areas because of their toxicological properties and radiation processing has been demonstrated as an effective replacement for such fumigants. The International Plant Protection Organization (IPPO) has decided that radiation processing is the broad spectrum quarantine treatment that has no specific requirements regarding insect species or host commodities. Regional organisations such as the North American Plant Protection Organization (NAPPO), the European and Mediterranean Plant Protection Organization (EPPO) and the Asian and the Pacific Plant Protection Commission (APPPC) have endorsed this alternative technology. Furthermore, under such competent bodies certification systems have been developed to facilitate international trade in commodities carrying a phytosanitary risk. Similar efforts have not yet been undertaken for sanitary purposes.

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