The author

Bill Jeffery is a public interest food lawyer and Executive Director of the Ottawa, Canada-based Centre for Health Science and Law. He has been the for Canadian representative on the International Association for Consumer Food Organizations (IACFO, an Officially recognized Observer at Codex) and IACFO’s delegate to the Canada-hosted/chaired Codex Committee on Food Labelling since 1998. Bill is Vice President of the Geneva Global Health Hub.

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Advocating a global Codex standard for Front-of-Pack Nutrition Labelling that promotes public health innovation/experimentation to optimize the public health impact of national nutrition labelling regulations?

There is no explicit international authorization for national mandatory public-health-oriented front-of-pack (FOP) nutrition labelling in current standards of the Codex Alimenentarius Commission, but exploring the development of such a standard is now being formally considered by the Codex Committee on Food Labelling.  A strong public health push is needed to ensure that, if a standard is adopted, it does not restrict innovation and experimentation in bona fides approaches to front-of-pack nutrition labelling that are easy to understand and conducive to improving public health.

By Bill Jeffery

Codex standards are expressly identified by the World Trade Organization as authoritative for resolving international trade disputes. The absence of such express authorization, in the case of FOP interpretive nutrition labelling, means that a government mandating interpretive FOP labelling would have a bigger challenge demonstrating that such labelling is scientifically justified, and not an unlawful barrier to trade.

More than 50 national governments have enacted regulations requiring detailed, nutrient-neutral back-of-pack (BOP) nutrition labelling regulations. However, even consumers with high nutrition/health knowledge and numeracy skills find that labels containing (frequently) a dozen or more nutrient numbers to be difficult to interpret. Moreover, much of the health impact of food relates to the amounts of whole ingredients consumed (e.g., the amounts of whole grains, fruit or added sugar) for which there is rarely any quantitative information on labels of multi-ingredient foods, let alone interpretive guidance about the good or bad health impact of such ingredients. In May 2016, the Codex Committee on Food Labelling (CCFL), after considering proposals from the International Association of Consumer Food Organizations (IACFO), and the Governments of New Zealand and Costa Rica, agreed to establish an inter-session Working Group to explore the possibility of proposing revisions to current Codex nutrition labelling standards.

The FOP Working Group has already begun its work with a view to recommending to the Committee whether to propose to the Codex Commission negotiating a new international standard for FOP interpretive nutrition labelling. The Working Group will operate in English and Spanish. If the Working Group recommends negotiating a new standard to the CCFL in November 2017, it is likely that the broader CCFL (with the approval of the over-arching governing body, the Codex Commission) will embark on a 3-5-year negotiation process advancing through a formal step process which aims to elevate the draft standard to a higher level of approval every 1.5-3 years, culminating in a new standard by approximately the summer of 2022, though initiating such negotiations does not assure consensus on a new standard or speedy adoption. Meanwhile, an expert group convened by the World Health Organization (European Region) met in Lisbon, Portugal in December 2015 to set out the evidence basis for action in this area. Its reports are expected to be published soon.

A strong Codex standard on front-of-pack nutrition labelling would promote evidence-based experimentation with bona fides national regulations mandating FOP interpretive nutrition labelling that is prominently displayed, easy to understand, and effective in helping consumer choose more nutritious foods and avoid less nutritious foods. A rigid Codex standard that obstructed efforts by national governments to mandate effective nutrition labelling could put a higher onus on governments to justify measures taken to promote public health nutrition and could put in question the capacity of the Codex process to develop forward-looking public health standards. (The World Health Organization has a constitutional mandate to implement international treaties that could, in theory, have the same legal effect, but it has only exercised this power once since its inception, culminating in the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. In the past, Codex standards have often been negotiated as compromises among many governments long after adopting similar national regulations and generally not as purposeful means of achieving public health goals; for instance, a global Codex standard on back-of-pack nutrition labelling was finally adopted 22 years after the first national nutrition labelling standard was developed in the United States and, only then, after the European union also adopted BOP labelling rules which approximately doubled the prevalence of national standards, globally.

The Codex Alimentarius Commission is a Joint Commission of the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization founded in 1962. While a parent organization Codex, WHO customarily refrains from taking strong advocacy positions at Codex Committee on Food Labelling meetings, preferring to let Member States and Officially Recognized Observers (health, industry, and other associations) guide standard-setting. There are no conflict of interest criteria for obtaining Recognized Observer Status. Observers and Members are generally permitted to make official written submissions, and two-minute oral interventions in each round of interventions. Written submissions filed on time are translated into the official languages of the Commission (English, French and Spanish).

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