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Codex and GM labelling – controversy, capacity and the consumer

by Diane Bartlett
M.A. University of Toronto, Department of Sociology

(Friday, May 2, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- The Codex Alimentarius, the joint WHO/UN body charged with developing a global ‘food code’ held their 31st Session of the Committee on Food Labelling (CCFL) April 28 – May 2nd 2003. The final version of the session report will soon be posted on the Codex website at Codexalimentarius.net.

The most contentious issue in this committee has been the development of standards for the labeling of genetically modified food. Work on this issue began following the 22nd Session of the CCFL in April 1993 when the U.S. began work on a discussion paper. In the next few years it was obvious that countries were deeply divided over the criteria for requiring a mandatory label. Some countries felt a mandatory label was necessary only in cases where a product was substantially different from a conventional counterpart, or for specific health concerns such as allerginicity. Other countries have pressed for a wider list of legitimate factors under the Codex mandate, such as information on the process of production and the need to recognize the consumers right to information. Although extensive consultation has taken place and draft guidelines have been prepared, the group has been unable to produce consensus beyond basic definitions. As of last year, some of the texts began moving backwards along the 8 step Codex process.

Chair Anne MacKenzie was clear that although the Codex was a system that relied on a high degree of deliberation and consensus, it was quite clear that no progress was being made using this format. On Wednesday, she tabled a proposal to convene a "Friends of the Chair" Advisory Group between now and the CCFL meeting in May 2004. This advisory group was preferable, she said, to the other options such as shelving the issue until the divisiveness in the world shifts, or resorting to a voting process which is highly unpalatable to Codex institutional culture.

This isn’t the first time that the issue has been given to a smaller group inside the committee. In April 1999 an Ad Hoc Working Group coordinated by Canada was formed involving 23 member nations, 9 international non-governmental organizations and the EU. This group made use of an even smaller drafting group.

It is not clear how this new advisory group will be able to resolve the existing divisions. Furthermore, resolving this issue will raise sensitive procedural and representation issues that have affected the legitimacy of the Codex process. Last year the UN and WHO commissioned a full review of the Codex process and generated a series of recommendations. One of these was to rework the controversial mandate of Codex ("to protect consumers’ health and ensure fair practices in the food trade") to clarify the role of trade and that of the consumer. No one was in favour. Instead, the member nations supported in principle the prioritization of work, a move that could still have serious implications for defining the place of the consumer in these deliberations. The first priority of Codex work was agreed to be "protection of consumer health and food safety" but no agreement could be reached regarding whether "consumers’ information and choice" were legitimate considerations of Codex. In principle the place and rights of the consumer in Codex remain ill-defined.

The primary challenge of this new group is to ensure fairness, representation and transparency. MacKenzie herself spoke of the need to construct a group representative in terms of geographical, linguistic, and population criteria, as well as a balance of developed and developing nation views. Transparency will be guaranteed by circulating working group reports to all committee members on an on-going basis. The mandate will be the "development of management options" and all Codex participants are being encouraged to formally submit their thoughts to the Codex Contact Point for Canada.

The agreement to form the working group essentially ended the discussion of GM labeling at the meeting. It also diverted the discussion away from a controversial Canadian proposal to split the discussion of GM labeling into two separate issues – "health and safety" and "consumer information". This move might be consistent with the ranking of priorities established in the Codex review, but dividing the agenda item in this way would answer the question of how to treat the consumer in a way some delegates would not accept. The new advisory group will instead include the Canadian paper as one of the options.

One key change over the working groups in the past is the inclusion of Norway. Their interventions in the meeting were strongly in support of viewing the consumer as an ‘equal participant’ in Codex work and they downplaying the degree to which the prioritization of Codex work represented any "denial of the consumer".

During the meeting the Netherlands, France, Sweden, Australia, Mexico, India, Egypt, Norway, Argentina, Switzerland, Kenya, South Africa, Indonesia and Bolivia all volunteered to be part of the new group. The final list of participants has not been released. Neither industry nor public interest based INGOs volunteered for participation. Bolivia requested that the name be changed to remove the implication that there were any countries in Codex who were not ‘Friends of the Chair". Bolivia also raised the important issue of capacity when they qualified their offer to volunteer by stating that this would depend on the "resource available to us to attend the meeting". A key development in the February 2003 Codex Session was the development of a Trust Fund for the Participation of Developing Countries in the work of the Codex. So far, the criteria for the use of these funds has yet to be established. The labeling of genetically modified food is one of the most controversial agenda items the Codex has ever considered. Given the political sensitivity of this topic and the need to provide legitimacy to the small advisory group, it would seem to be the sort of situation that begs for capacity building funds. However, no provisions have been made to use trust funds to support the resolution of specific issues.

Although it was roughly implied that Anne MacKenzie would chair this advisory group, when asked to clarify her role she stated that it was her "intention to remain very much involved in the progression of this work". It appears that many committee participants felt she performed well and fairly in her role as chair and that her presence might be crucial to the survival of the process. The details of the meeting have not been finalized, but it is likely that it will take place on the West Coast of Canada during October 2003. Resolution of this agenda item will likely set a precedent for the future power of the consumer in the Codex system.