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Codex Frontlines

Cracking Codex the Indian Way

Reprinted from Consumers International.
Copyright 1997-2000 The Fridtjof Nansen Institute.

"I am glad to inform you that lobbying and perseverance have paid off," wrote Sri Ram Khanna, of the Indian consumer group VOICE.

Not only has the Indian delegation decided to support the CI positions for which all of us have been lobbying hectically, but the government of India has included VOICE in the two-member Indian delegation (to the Ottawa Codex meeting)."

It was a small message but it brought news of a big step forward. Weeks before, municipal officials had illegally sealed the New Delhi offices of the Voluntary Organisation in Interest of Consumer Education, alleging unauthorised construction by the building owner and "bringing our activities to a standstill, as the entire office records, equipment and furniture are locked up."

While that setback proved to be temporary, it crowned a longer struggle by VOICE to bring consumer perspectives to the Codex process. Here's how it came about, in the words of VOICE Trustee Khanna.

"VOICE had been participating in the Central Committee for Food Standards, which lays down the legal standards for food in India, for several years. CI's briefing paper on Codex prompted VOICE to raise the issue of consumer representation in the Codex process with the Federal Ministry in charge of Consumer Affairs. This Ministry was sympathetic to the issue and recommended that the Ministry of Health involve consumer groups in the Codex process.

Further lobbying led to the reconstitution of the National Codex Committee. The government named two consumer groups (including VOICE) to this Committee. Meetings are held once a year and 'shadow committees' are named to follow each of the Codex committees. "

VOICE argued that consumer groups be represented in the shadow committees. It is rather disappointing to note the ad-hoc workings of the latter. VOICE was - and continues to be - constrained in making contributions to national positions because of late delivery of agenda papers. (In fact, the government itself receives agenda papers only a few days before meetings.) VOICE tried its best to contribute as much as it could on issues of consumer concern. As the quality of VOICE interventions increased, trade, industry and government interests began to pay serious attention to the consumer viewpoint. "

VOICE is currently represented on six shadow committees. This means that VOICE is provided with copies of agenda papers and invited to the meetings where national positions are formulated. At first, other members questioned the need to consult consumer groups or include them in delegations. After more than one year of advocacy, VOICE was finally included on the national delegation for Codex meetings. On the first of these occasions, it was discovered that the recommendation to include a consumer representative was used by the Minister of Health to nominate one of his political supporters. The Minister's favourite participated in this particular Codex meeting at government expense."

Ignoring Ruralia

When persistence finally pays off and a consumer organisation finds itself on a national delegation to a Codex meeting, it may find some unpleasant surprises. Khanna gives the following account of how a developing country delegation was pushed around at a recent Codex meeting. "The name of the developing country has been disguised so as not to offend national sensibilities," he adds. "The rest is all authentic." "

Among the developing country delegations, Ruralia took the floor on several occasions to make contributions. The most active participants were the US, Canada, Denmark, Germany, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland. Less active, but quite important, were Belgium, France and the UK. While contrary opinions were expressed by others, there was always consensus when active participants agreed. On the occasions that the Ruralian delegation made points contrary to the liking of active members and the Secretariat, these were brushed aside. "

On the first day, the Ruralian delegation did not find a single government to support its submissions. On the second day, the Ruralian submission was supported only by Ghana. "

The situation was hopeless from Ruralia's point of view, since the major participants take the developing countries for granted. This position seems to have emerged due to the repeated absence of most developing country delegations at Codex meetings and the overall lack of valuable contributions on behalf of developing country delegations from those who are present."

Several factors explain the disinterest shown for the positions of developing countries like Ruralia, Khanna adds. Although over 75 percent of Codex Commission members are developing countries, scant reference is made to their difficulties or needs in implementing Codex standards. Nor was the Ruralian delegation well prepared for the meeting. Its positions on agenda items were formulated just two days prior to the meeting, allowing for no advance preparation. Nor could other national organisations be consulted to get a complete view. And there was a total lack of liaison with other delegations at the meeting, leading to poor support for Ruralian submissions.

The Pesticides Beat

For an insider's view of Codex campaigning, join CI representatives Lisa Lefferts (Consumers Union, USA) and Ronald Luijk (Consumentenbond, Netherlands) at April's Committee on Pesticide Residues meeting. The following is excerpted from a memo sent in the heat of deliberations.

"The meeting is still going on," Lefferts writes, "but four aspects are troubling from the consumer perspective.

  • CI submitted written comments opposing the advancement of pesticide standards, called MRLs (maximum residue limits) for a particularly worrisome class of pesticides - the organophosphate (OP) insecticides. Children are especially vulnerable to OPs, which are toxic to the nervous system. The main concern is that continued long-term exposure could affect normal brain development and, subsequently, learning and behaviour. Children receive greater exposures to OPs in their diet than do adults. They also receive non-dietary exposures, through pesticides applied at home, on pets, in school. Since all OPs share a common mechanism of toxicity, these exposures can add up. Yet currently, Codex procedures ignore non-dietary exposures, pretend that consumers are exposed to one pesticide in the diet at a time and are directed toward adults, not children.

While there seemed to be sympathy for many of these concerns, the Committee nonetheless made the disturbing decision to advance MRLs for OP insecticides. It seems that this Codex committee won't let valid concerns about the health of children interfere with its business of advancing pesticides.

  • In another startling development, the committee gave its stamp of approval to some pesticides for which exposure estimates exceed acceptable daily intakes (ADI, considered "safe" levels.) Codex is now allowing pesticides to exceed ADI by as much as twofold.

Codex is basing these decisions - which permit greater exposure to consumers - on assumptions, not scientific data.

  • CI also stated its opposition to a practice where the committee relied on estimates prepared by the manufacturer. There is clearly a potential conflict of interest. CI proposes that a working group be used to review estimates, but this was rejected by the committee.
  • It is apparent that the committee gives plenty of latitude for additional data or re-calculations that will lower estimates of risk and allow pesticides to advance. But refinements that may increase the estimate of risk are not included.

CI delegate Luijk calls this practice a "one-way street" that benefits international trade. "But what about consumer health?" he asks.

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