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Codex and the politics of labeling

By Brewster Kneen
for CropChoice

The annual meeting of the Codex Alimentarius Committee on Food Labelling will be meeting in Halifax, Nova Scotia, May 6-10. The following article provides both background and analysis of the current situation regarding the major agenda item for the meeting, the labelling of GE foods.

(April 15, 2002 -- CropChoice news) -- Any discussion of the labelling of foods produced through genetic engineering has to be situated within the context of agbiotech industry strategy. It is my contention that for at least the past decade the strategy of the biotech industry and its government partners, particularly in the US and Canada, has been to contaminate the global food system as fast and extensively as possible and then say, ‘it is too late to do anything about it, and it is certainly too late to label. Besides which, you cannot stand in the way of progress.’

Dale Adolph, formerly head of the Canola Council of Canada and as such a major promoter of GE crops, now head of the Canadian Seed Growers Association, recently told the Canola Council, "The total acreage devoted to GM crops around the world is expanding. That may be what eventually brings the debate to an end. It’s a hell of a thing to say that the way we win is don’t give the consumer a choice, but that might be it." (Western Producer, 4/4/02)

The Codex Alimentarius Committee on Food Labelling (CCFL) has been struggling with the issue of labelling foods produced through biotechnology since 1995. The CCFL is a committee of the Codex Alimentarius Commission, established by the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in 1962 "to guide and promote the elaboration and establishment of definitions and requirements for foods, to assist in their harmonization and, in doing so, to facilitate international trade."

The CCFL, of which Canada is both host country and chair, operates by consensus according to general Codex rules that remain surprisingly undefined. A couple of years ago the US tried to force adoption of weighted ‘majority’ rule when it realized it could not get its way through the consensus process but fortunately that attempt failed dismally. Judging by US comments prepared for the May meeting of the CCFL, the US intends to bully hard from its unilateralist position to get its way nevertheless. Its current tactic is to stall the process altogether. This year it is putting forth a document on the perils of "misleadingness."

There are no enforcement mechanisms for Codex standards, since Codex was established to supply the definitions and standards that countries and companies could use voluntarily to facilitate their international trade when appropriate.

The first Codex discussion of biotechnology and its possible implications for international food standards and codes of practice took place during the 1989 Session of the Codex Alimentarius Commission. A 1990 FAO/WHO consultation set the ideological foundation for future work on GE foods with the statement that, "Biotechnology has a long history of use in food production and processing. It represents a continuum embracing traditional breeding techniques and the latest techniques based on molecular biology. . ." It recommended that, "Consumers should be provided with sound, scientifically based information which explains the application of biotechnology in food production and processing and clarifies the safety issues."(emphasis added)

In 1991, the Codex Alimentarius Commission "endorsed the conclusions and recommendations of the Joint FAO/WHO Consultation," noted that "consumers would benefit from ‘modern’ food biotechnology," and requested the Codex Committee on Food Labelling (CCFL) to provide guidance on how the fact that a food was derived from ‘modern’ biotechnologies could be made known to consumers." (emphasis in original). It should be noted that the purpose of any labelling was to be the promotion of GE foods.

It was 1995 before the Commission approved a Project Plan for Biotechnology which called for "the establishment of guidelines for labelling of foods derived from biotechnology."

At its 1996 meeting, the CCFL "noted the opinions of many delegations and observers which called for the mandatory and comprehensive labelling of all foods prepared with the aid of biotechnology on the basis of the consumers right to know the origin and nature of the foods which they purchased." However, the CCFL report of the meeting also noted that, "many other delegations and observers [read: ‘US and friends’] stressed that labelling should address the specific concerns of safety (including potential allergenicity), nutrition and food composition, all of which could be subject to scientific study and evaluation."

The Proposed Draft Recommendations that came out of the 1997 meeting marked a further shift away from the original mandate, reflected in the comment that "While consumers may claim the right to know whether foods had been produced by biotechnology, this right was ill-defined and variable and in this respect could not be used by Codex as the primary basis of decision-making on appropriate labelling."

The Recommendations also introduced the product/process distinction, stating that, "a number of issues raised by the use of biotechnology . . . are not related to the food itself, but to the process or other factors which have no bearing on the safety and quality of the product as consumed." (Emphasis added)

No further headway was made in 1998, and in 1999 the delegation of the United States, its position against labelling hardening even while its isolation was increasing, insisted that "there was no scientific basis to require systematic labelling of foods containing or obtained from genetically modified organisms and that only those foods which differed significantly from their conventional counterpart as regards composition, use or nutritional quality should be specifically labelled."

At the meetings in 2000 and 2001, the US and its trusted partners, Canada and now Argentina, attempted to stall the process in the face of the growing demand for meaningful labelling. To this end, the US balked at any discussion of traceability and put forward first a paper calling for detailed (and irrelevant) analysis of the costs and difficulties of implementation of standards (which remain voluntary) and more recently, a paper on the perils of "misleading" labels, by which they clearly mean, without ever mentioning it, the labelling of foods as produced through genetic engineering.

In 2001, four countries grew 99% of the global transgenic crop area: USA, 68% of the global total; Argentina, 22%; Canada, 6%; China 3%. 46% of the soybeans planted globally were transgenic; 20% of the cotton; 11% of the canola; and 7% of the maize/corn. (Source: ISAAA Briefs No. 24 - 2001)

Given the chaotic conditions in Argentina and the costs of participating in meetings such as that of Codex, it is sad to see Argentina being used as a mouthpiece by the US, with Canada in a supporting role, along with the International Association of Plant Breeders (ASSINSEL) and the International Council of Grocery Manufacturers Associations (ICGMA)

. It must be noted here that in Canada an industry-dominated committee of the Canadian General Standards Board has been struggling for 2-1/2 years to avoid developing a standard for the labelling of foods produced through biotechnology. Instead, it has been trying to formulate a standard for the labelling of non-GE foods (‘negative’ labelling). The Food and Consumer Products Manufacturers of Canada (FCPMC), a member of the ICGMA, has become the lead opponent of labelling of GE foods, joined by the Canadian Council of Grocery Distributors. This bears strong witness to the global strategy of the biotech industry and its front groups to avoid labelling of their unwelcome products.

Judging by the preparatory materials for this year’s meeting of the CCFL, it appears that the EU will be the lead voice for the vast majority of countries calling for meaningful labelling of GE foods, foods containing genetically engineered ingredients, and foods produced through GE (product and process).

(See appended excerpts from preparatory documents.)

Apart from the crudely transparent strategy of obstruction being implemented by the US on behalf of the biotech industry, I identify six issues requiring close observation and intervention: traceability, conventional counterparts, thresholds, negative labelling, labels as warnings and product/process.

1. The biotech industry is desperate to kill the call for traceability (of which Europe is the major advocate). The industry simply does not want to take responsibility for its products or to accept liability. In the absence of labelling it is hard, if not impossible, to attach liability. Despite general industry claims that traceability is impossible and too costly, major trading and manufacturing companies, such as Cargill with its Innovasure system, are guaranteeing delivery of Identity Preserved (IP) crops, including non-GE. Traceability is also being implemented in the North American beef industry, which has discovered the sales appeal of IP, traceability, and labelling, without which there can be no market premium.

2. The US is now pushing another mechanism to avoid identification of GE. This tactic is appearing in arguments concerning pesticide regulation as well as biotech. The words to watch for are "conventional counterparts." What the industry is after is being able to include GE foods in "conventional counterparts" so that a new GE crop can be declared substantially equivalent to a previously approved GE product to avoid any possible need for regulation and/or labelling.

3. As the demand for labelling has increased, the industry has looked around for ways to make it as meaningless as possible. Thus the CGSB committee in Canada is calling for a 5% threshold, meaning that a product could be labelled non-GE and still contain GE material. The argument is that the food system has been so successfully contaminated that there is no such thing as non-GE. Yet there are now tests on the market to detect down to .1% or less of GE material in a product. Nevertheless, the biotech industry will continue to push for thresholds high enough to make labelling as non-GE meaningless while at the same time fighting against any form of GE-positive labelling.

4. Another tactic is to push to negative (‘non-GE’) labelling to shift the cost and responsibility onto the uncontaminated food producers. Canada seems to be the primary promoter of this tactic. At the same time, the industry, again in Canada, is arguing for a 5% threshold of tolerance, so that a food labelled as non-GE could contain up to 5% GE components. Clearly the industry either simply wants to make labelling meaningless or it is simply being obstructionists, throwing up what it knows to be unacceptable proposals.

5. On top of this, the industry is also now arguing that the public will wrongly interpret any GE label as a warning, and that therefore a GE label would be misleading. After all, the GE foods have been approved by the regulatory authorities. This is one of the oddest arguments against labelling and there are some industry people who recognize that the longer there is no labelling, the more the public wonders what is being hidden and the more the GE label will be interpreted as a warning.

6. Finally there is the old process/product argument. The industry knows the public does not make the distinction, so the argument really becomes just another stalling tactic.

This quick examination of the tactics and arguments of the biotech industry and its government partners, particularly in the three major GE crop production areas (US, Argentina and Canada) makes it obvious that there is a single global strategy in place to defend the special interests of the biotech industry at the expense of the environment and the public and in defiance of public demands. There are hard line ideological warriors such as Monsanto which have chosen to take this route, making themselves outcasts and enemies. There are many more corporations that are pragmatic and more responsive to public/consumer pressure and interests. In the Codex arena, as in many other arenas, this distinction is politically important though not readily apparent.

At this point, with the world being relentlessly and deliberately contaminated with GE crops, the public demanding labelling, and the industry fighting labelling in every way possible, it is necessary to ask a very simple question: Did the governments of Canada and the US ever intend to actually negotiate the issue of labelling in good faith? Have they been acting in bad faith all the time? Sadly, it now appears so.

If this is the case, there is little to be gained by trying to deal honestly with agencies that are not acting in good faith. On the other hand, Codex, like many other forums and agencies, provides an opportunity to organize. This has been happening over the years in the Codex meetings and has resulted in the increasing isolation of the US, Canada, and whomever they have chosen as their current mouthpieces. This offers ample explanation for their unilateralism and obstructionism. Now they must be marginalized by the collective action of those governments, NGOs and civil society groups committed to the public good.

Excerpts from the general comments on document CX/FL 02/06, "Proposed Draft Guidelines for the Labelling of Foods and Food Ingredients Obtained Through Certain Techniques of Genetic Modification/Genetic Engineering." (The language of the title itself is still subject to debate.)

"THE EUROPEAN COMMUNITY is of the opinion that factual, understandable and non-misleading information on the fact that foods are containing, consisting or have been produced from genetically modified organisms will help resolving the current controversy concerning the application of gene technology in the food sector."

THE UNITED STATES "does not support advancing the current draft guidelines in the Codex process until these concerns are addressed and consensus is formed. . . The United States continues to believe that a mandatory process-based label on genetically engineered food has the potential to be perceived by many consumers as a warning label that the product is unsafe, and therefore could be misleading and, consequently, inappropriate as a mandatory international guideline. Foods derived from biotechnology are not inherently less safe than other foods."

"The United States’ position is that the text of the draft guidelines under discussion fails to address the practical implications that must be considered by countries before mandatory process-based labelling is implemented. . . Thus, the United States believes that it is premature for these draft guidelines to advance."

". . . the United States strongly believes that the Committee should hold in abeyance any further discussion on mandatory process-based labelling until more comprehensive information is available regarding the implications of such labelling, particularly information relating the costs and impact on international trade."

ARGENTINA does "not believe that the differentiation by production methods is appropriate for labelling purposes. Essentially, this is due to the rights and obligations contracted under the World Trade Organization . . . We also think that such a differentiation by production methods . . . could generate doubts about the safety of similar foods or could create fear in the consumers"

ASSINSEL (INTERNATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF PLANT BREEDERS) "reiterates its position that there is no scientific ground for labelling a product according to the process it has been obtained.

ICGMA (INTERNATIONAL COUNCIL OF GROCERY MANUFACTURERS ASSOCIATIONS) "continues to oppose those components of labelling of foods obtained through techniques of modern biotechnology that are not based on sound science. . . Facilitating safe global food trade, not creating global trade barriers, should be the desired outcome in this debate. Any erosion of sound science will undermine the World Trade Organization’s Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS Agreement) and our global food safety system.".

"It should be noted that today not all information is conveyed to consumers through a label as different consumers care about different things and label space is limited. Food manufacturers use 1-800 phone numbers, web based information, brochures and other forms of communication to address consumer specific needs. . . Unnecessary information on a label can drown out critical messages, or worse, confuse consumers."

CANADA "supports labelling that provides consumers with clear, meaningful, and credible information. . . Canada also believes that the decision to identify method of production on a label should be a voluntary decision by the private sector that is based on consumer demand."

In the same document there are comments on the draft guideline, among them the following:

ARGENTINA suggests that the purpose of the guidelines be rewritten as follows: "To provide guidelines to ensure that the labelling of food and food ingredients derived from modern biotechnology provides factual, verifiable, understandable and non-misleading information relevant to protect the health of the consumer and to ensure the implementation of fair practices in food trade. . . These guidelines set out a number of approaches and related information that could be used for the labelling of food and food ingredients and to take advantage of the great opportunities to contribute to human welfare presented by modern biotechnology." [emphasis added]


"CANADA believes that the scope of this guideline includes labelling to indicate two distinct types of information. . . : product-related characteristics of such foods resulting from the use of modern biotechnology in their production, and the fact that modern biotechnology was used to produce these foods. Canada strongly believes that the scope of the guidelines should clearly distinguish between labelling for these two reasons.

"In addition, given that the definition of "no longer equivalent"/"differs significantly" is no longer found in the Definitions section, Canada believes that there is a need to include elements of that definition in the text of Subsection 1.1.1. For consistency with the terminology used by the Codex Task Force on Food Biotechnology, we also suggest that the term "corresponding conventional counterparts" replace the term "corresponding existing food and food ingredients" found in the former definition.

Canada (supported by Argentina, ASSINSEL and ICGMA) "strongly believes . . . that labelling which is not based on product characteristics, but rather on method of production, should be implemented by the marketplace on a voluntary basis."

Ethical Objections

ARGENTINA suggests eliminating the paragraph on "ethical objections" and replacing it with the following: "The presence of substances absent from equivalent foods and food ingredients, and that are objectionable for dietetic reasons, should be indicated in the label. . . We do not believe it is appropriate to consider ethical objections in this document. In the context it is presented, it would appear that the objections arise more from a dietary restriction (such as vegetarian diets) than from other issues . . . taking always into account it should not become a trade impediment."

CANADA says it "strongly believes that the term "ethical objections" is too open-ended and could lead to an endless list of possible objections. Canada believes that the term "ethical objections" should be replaced with the term "dietary restrictions." Since the draft guideline deals with labelling of food/food ingredients it would seem reasonable to limit the focus of this section to objections related to the consumption of food based on religious considerations.

COLOMBIA does not agree. "We consider that labelling is a must. . . The term "ethical objections" may have a wide variety of meanings, and, therefore, other terms are suggested, such as: ethical, cultural and religious considerations" and "dietetic restrictions "

THE EUROPEAN COMMUNITY "believes that ethical objections that may go beyond the labelling of pork fat, lard and beef should be taken into account for labelling."

ASSINSEL and ICGMA agree that ethical considerations be deleted and left to be addressed through voluntary labelling standards since they "have no scientific basis for mandatory labelling."

MALAYSIA, as a multi-cultural and multi-religious country, "strongly feels that ethical, cultural and religious considerations should be taken into account when issues on the labelling of food and food ingredients obtained through certain techniques of genetic modification / genetic engineering are being discussed. Consumers should be given the right of choice."


Regarding thresholds, " Where method of production labelling is used, CANADA strongly believes that there is a clear need to establish specific threshold level(s) . . . below which labelling would not apply."

CANADA provides the rationale that: "Despite best efforts to maintain product identity and to apply rigorous segregation practices throughout the marketing chain, modern crop production methods and the necessity for multilevel handling, distribution and food processing practices as well as natural events, present a significant potential for some product mixing to occur. This mixing could be in excess of a possible de minimus level for adventitious or accidental inclusion. Not recognizing this reality could result in misleading and/or erroneous product label information being presented to consumers.

ASSINSEL "considers that a threshold for adventitious presence of food ingredients obtained through genetic engineering is definitively necessary. In absence of such a threshold, the system would be unmanageable, since non-voluntary admixing in the food chain, at low level, is practically unavoidable."

THE EUROPEAN COMMUNITY, however, "supports the establishing of a threshold value of adventitious or technically unavoidable presence of material of GMO origin in conventional foods and food ingredients. The European Community is not in favour of establishing a general threshold."

In regard to food and food ingredients labelled to declare the method of production, "CANADA strongly recommends that the draft guideline provide a framework for the use of negative labelling . . . the possible frequent use of negative labelling in Codex countries, the recognition of negative labelling under the Codex General Guidelines on Claims . . . and the linkage of the concepts of thresholds and tolerances to negative labelling."

About the author:Brewster Kneen is director of the 49th Parallel Biotechnology Consortium (49), an FAO-recognized organization, publisher of The Ram's Horn, and author of "Farmageddon, Food and the Culture of Biotechnology."