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CONSENSUS AND MELAMINE – A TALE OF TWO CODEX CITIES

         The National Health Federation did not just attend the recent Codex Committee on Food Labelling meeting held earlier this month in Quebec City, Canada, it also attended the Codex Committee on General Principles (CCGP) meeting held in mid-April in Paris, France as well as the Codex Committee on Contaminants in Foods (CCCF) meeting held in late April in Izmir, Turkey.  On the issues of concern to NHF, we were quite vocal at both meetings and definitely drove our points home.

CCGP Meeting – Paris

         This Committee is concerned with drafting changes to the Codex Manual of Procedure that governs all of the Codex Committees.  And since the Codex Committees do not actually vote on issues but rather reach agreement through “consensus,” CCGP’s discussion of the definition of consensus was important to the Federation.

         Here, NHF was able to make a technically small but important change to the wording that described consensus so that consensus was not always presumed to be reached.  To our mind, of course, Codex advancement towards adopting a particular guideline or standard is not universally desirable.  Anything that could slow that consensus down is to be sought.

         “What happened,” Scott Tips, NHF’s Codex delegate explained, “was that the delegate from Uruguay had made a quite sensible suggestion of a word change to the definition such that consensus would not be automatically presumed.  This suggestion was lost in the general discussion and forgotten until it came to NHF’s turn to speak and I pointed out to the Committee the sensibility of what Uruguay had proposed.  This started the ball rolling again, with Uruguay actually thanking us for having revived the idea, which it had considered dead, then Australia jumping in with its support for the idea, and the Committee finally adopting the word change.  This shows that INGOs can make a difference at these meetings.

         Bottom-line, consensus at Codex meetings will be better defined and not automatically presumed.

CCCF Meeting – Izmir

         The following week, and dodging hypothetical volcanic-ash clouds and actual airport closings to leave Paris and fly to Turkey, NHF Codex delegate Scott Tips then attended the CCCF meeting held in the Aegean seacoast City of Izmir.  This Committee meeting deals with, among other things, melamine contamination in food.

         The hosts for the meeting were the Dutch government nominally and the Turkish government actually, with the Turkish host outdoing all other Committees in the quality of the surroundings, receptions, and events planned for the Codex delegates.  This was far and away the best-arranged Codex meeting, thanks to Turkey.

         The main issue at this meeting was the Committee’s general desire to adopt acceptable levels for melamine in foods when melamine is not even a contaminant naturally found in soil, water, or air.  It is completely man-made and man-introduced.  So, its acceptable level should be set at zero.  Unfortunately, the Committee members had other ideas.  (See Codex document “Proposed Draft Maximum Levels for Melamine in Food and Feed (N13-2009)at www.thenhf.com/codex/codexmelamine2010mtgdoc.pdf.)  The CCCF party line, espoused most vocally by the European Union (EU), was to establish an acceptable contamination level for melamine at 1.0 part per million (ppm, equal to 1 milligram per kilogram of food) for infant formulas and 2.5 ppm for adults.

         At the meeting, NHF’s delegate Scott Tips argued, unfortunately alone, that “Melamine is a synthetic chemical, deliberately added to foods.  It is cumulative, deadly to humans and animals, and, as such, has no place in the food chain.  Its acceptable limit for human consumption should be set at zero.  Unlike naturally-occurring toxins, such as arsenic and lead, melamine is an intentional contaminant, whether directly or indirectly added to foods.”  (See also the NHF’s written comments, submitted to the Committee as CRD 10, at www.thenhf.com/codex/MELAMINEPAPER4-10.pdf.)

         But hearing delegation after delegation after delegation support the EU position (even one, Ghana, which had promised earlier to support the NHF), the NHF argued its fallback position, which was that the 1.0 level for infants should then be set across the board for all foods and feeds.  “Why,” Mr. Tips challenged the delegates, “if the issue is – as the EU and other delegations say – that we cannot keep melamine out of our foods as a practical matter, we are able to establish a level of 1.0 contamination for infants but find it impossible to set the same for adults? Why not 1.0 for all, at the very least?

         Not one single delegation answered that question, so NHF raised it yet again, challenging the delegates to answer it and braving the disdain of the CCCF chairman Mr. Martijn Weijtens, who insulted the NHF.  Still, no one could or would answer the question.

         Instead, the EU delegate proceeded to push through exemptions to even these unacceptable levels of melamine contamination!  So, in three cases (from the application of cyromazine as a pesticide/herbicide, from migration through food contact with melamine dinnerware and other foodware, and from certain food additives and ingredients) even the insane 2.5 ppm level will and can be exceeded, as the CCCF agreed with the EU suggestion!  They could not have cared less.

         “I was stunned when I heard that the EU wanted exemptions so large that you could drive a truck through them,” Mr. Tips explained.  “I was just waiting for someone to suggest that all of the Codex delegates place their heads in nooses too, for I was certain they all would have happily murmured their assent to that suggestion as well.

         The CCCF meeting ended on the last day of April, having mindlessly adopted standards of melamine contamination that will needlessly harm humans and animals all over the World all for the convenience of a few industries.  It was absolutely inconceivable and disgusting that only the National Health Federation spoke out against melamine contamination.

         As Mr. Tips said, “It is truly bizarre that Codex delegates will trip all over themselves in their rush to establish low maximum acceptable levels for healthy vitamins and minerals, but when it comes to a true industrial contaminant, extremely harmful to health, they look the other way.”