Contaminated food causes 600 million cases of foodborne disease a year and over 400,000 deaths, demonstrating the clear connection between food safety and public health. Yet the importance of food safety goes beyond direct impacts on health. It is also fundamental for developing market economies, maintaining livelihoods, and increasing trade – especially for developing countries trying to break into growing global markets in food and agriculture.
International trade in food and agriculture more than doubled in value between 1995 and 2018 to US$1.5 trillion when technological improvements and lower trade barriers spurred the growth of global value chains. This explosion in trade has widened supply and boosted opportunities to improve livelihoods. But it has also put a renewed focus on food safety standards as higher volumes of perishable goods move across borders. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has further highlighted the connections between health, the environment and development, food safety concerns look certain to become a growing international priority.
The Codex Alimentarius Commission, established in 1963 under the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization, is where food safety regulators from all over the world convene to set food safety standards based on scientific principles. Originally, countries applied their own individual, national standards. But with the establishment of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995, Codex gained more importance thanks in the main to the Sanitary Phytosanitary (SPS) measures and Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT) agreements that set norms on the safe trade of food and agricultural products worldwide.
Even though Member State engagement has improved in recent years, many developing countries still struggle to benefit fully from Codex membership, both in terms of involvement in the standard-setting process and in their ability to implement its standards and guidelines. This is because as science evolves, countries with already limited capacities are often unable to address more complex, increasingly stringent food safety requirements and regulations set by more developed countries.