Codex Alimentarius Committee on Food Labelling (CCFL) adopts modernized international rules on date marking

Date: Nov 13, 2017

This article originally appeared in World Food Regulation Review and is reprinted with permission.

Codex Alimentarius Committee on Food Labelling (CCFL) adopts modernized international rules on date marking; embarks on critical discussions on Front-Of-Pack Nutrition Labelling Guidelines for trade; defines six new areas of work e.g. on e-commerce of foods via the Internet, on new communication technologies for enhancing food information to consumers and on defining HFSS foods; while asking the Codex Nutrition Committee to consider new work on a truly global and science-based nutrition profiling system.

The 44th session of the Codex alimentarius Committee on Food Labelling (i.e., CCFL44), held in Asunción (Paraguay) from 16 to 20 October 2017, succeeded to reach a broad consensus to modernize international date marking rules included in the international Codex alimentarius standard on labelling of prepackaged foods. This is the first time since its adoption in 1985
[1] that such a thorough revision took place and the Canadian Chairwoman of CCLF44, Mrs Lyzette Lamondin[2] should be praised for her leadership in handling this revision. CCFL44 also agreed to develop new Codex guidelines to help countries developing converging Front-of-Pack nutrition labelling (i.e. FOPNL) schemes, yet to see whether it decreases or increases national technical barriers to trade, recently flourishing in that area. CCFL44 also decided to embrace the 21st century A.D. in exploring areas of international regulations on e-commerce practices in direct internet sales of foods and drinks, as well as work on the use of new information technologies to convey mandatory and/or voluntary information to consumers, in complement to – or maybe as a substitute of – information particulars currently provided on labels. CCFL44 also agreed to explore potential normative developments on (i) alcohol labelling; (ii) the revision of current allergen labelling principles, rules and exemptions; (iii) multipacks and joint presentations labelling; and, (iv) criteria for the definition of foods high in sugars, fats and sodium (i.e. the famous HFSS foods), among others. Last but not least, CCFL44 requested the forthcoming December session of the Codex Committee on Nutrition (i.e. CCNFSDU) to explore possible new work of that Committee on defining potential new global harmonization on nutrition profiles, a landmark move towards “uncharted Codex waters”.

Date marking: a difficult way to consensus, with a very happy end

Based on the review of all the comments submitted in advance to this CCFL44, it was certainly very difficult to predict whether countries would be able to finetune the draft text – accepted 18 months ago by the previous CCFL – intended to revise the section of the Codex general standard on food labelling on date marking (i.e. on “expiry date” and “best before date”). CCFL44 main objective was to ensure that the text was still agreed upon by all countries. Therefore, CCFL44 agreed to revise the section on date marking to (i) provide more clarity on the harmonized ways to provide date marks, (ii) introduce synonyms to reflect global diversity of date marks, and (iii) address differences in food with shorter or longer conservation period. However, as pointed out by Senegal it does not address yet abbreviations sometimes used – i.e. in French and in Western Africa in particular. Maybe it will be, in the context of the longer term work plan of the CCFL (see Infra).

An issue discussed fiercely was on how possible exemptions from safety and/or quality date marking in the future could be made by means of objective and globally agreed principles. Such exemptions have been viewed as acceptable in international food trade since 1985, but they have not necessarily become well understood by what we could describe as “the third (maybe even the fourth) generation” of food labelling enforcement officers, since the last negotiations were held in 1983-1985.

After much discussion and various elegant ways to find consensus by the Chairwoman, CCFL44 agreed on four basic principles to grant such exemptions, namely: (i) where safety is not compromised and quality does not deteriorate because the nature of the food is such that it cannot support microbial growth (e.g. alcohol, salt, acidity, low water activity) under intended or stated storage conditions; (ii) where the deterioration is clearly evident by physical examination at the point of purchase, such as raw fresh produce that has not been subject to processing and presented in a manner that is visible to the consumer; (iii) where the key/organoleptic quality aspects of the food are not lost; and (iv) where the food by its nature is normally consumed within 24 hours of its manufacture, such as some bakers’ or pastry-cooks’wares. CCFL44 included in the introductory text that these principles and exemptions would not be applicable in cases where food safety is compromised.

To reach wider consensus, especially with several skeptical South American and African countries, CCFL44 decided to transform the current list of exemptions as an illustrative list for food eligible to exemptions based on the newly agreed principles. Examples remain therefore the same as the ones in the current version of CODEX STAN 1. During the review of those now-illustrative examples, concerns were expressed by three Mercosur member countries on some of them (e.g. confectionery composed of flavoured/coloured sugars, alcoholic beverages with added colours, and chewing gum), primarily based on the general argument (i.e. statement) that any food containing food additives (at large) and/or flavourings may be subject to deterioration at some point in time. Other countries and the CCFL44 more generally were not convinced at all by this selective approach, as the examples picked up may arguably have a much longer stability than other foods in the retained list of exemptions, e.g. fresh fruits and vegetables.

One may observe that, in any case, it is in the food manufacturer’s best interests to provide, even on a voluntary basis, all the relevant information to the consumer on until when a certain food must be consumed and procure the highest joy, pleasure and gustative/nutritive satisfaction to the consumer, given that meeting consumer expectations are – and will always be – one of the primary drivers for any food (re)purchase. The revised text also foresees that a date of manufacture may alternatively be provided – on a voluntary basis by the manufacturer – in the case of such foods exempted from date marking.

The agreed revised text will now go to the July 2018 Codex Alimentarius Commission for final approval and subsequent insertion into the 2018 version of CODEX STAN 1.

Front-Of-Pack Nutrition Labelling (FOPNL): towards global guidance and maybe further harmonization of national schemes – or the exact… opposite

As anticipated, this agenda item of CCFL44 was – by far – the ultimate climax of the CCFL44 session.

All delegations which expressed their views on the topic praised the colossal work done by Costa Rica and New Zealand over the past eighteen months in collecting information on all FOPNL national or private schemes, voluntary or mandatory.

In short, CCFL44 agreed to develop a new work to draft new Codex guidelines with primary objectives to (i) set a Codex definition of what is FOP Labelling in general and a FOPNL scheme in particular, (ii) define general principles a country may apply in developing such schemes, (iii) develop a step-wise approach for countries to develop and implement their national scheme and (iv) any other relevant aspects.

Neither the proposed structure of the future guidelines nor the country views expressed during CCFL44 have helped in clarifying fully whether:
- these future Codex guidelines would lead to a real (and necessary) convergence in the way countries would adopt or adapt their existing FOPNL schemes, or rather;
- be so general that it may lead to an epidemic of national schemes deviating from each other enough so that they will constitute de facto new disproportionate, discriminatory and disguised national technical (protectionist) barriers to international foods and drinks trade.

Indeed, in that second scenario above – while pushing it to an extreme – foods and drinks traded internationally will have to be designed with one FOP label for each country. In other terms, regardless whether such final text is to be included in the existing Codex guidelines on nutrition labelling or as a standalone Codex norm, such Codex guidelines will determine if international trade will be facilitated or simply become a reminiscent souvenir from the 20th century A.D “Millenium Round”.

This important new work will normally start as soon as the next Codex Alimentarius Commission approves it as new work at its next session in July 2018 and will be supported by an electronic working group co-chaired by New Zealand and Costa Rica to develop the first draft of the guidelines, which will then be subject to comments from all Codex member countries and observer organisations in advance of the next CCFL session.

CCFL expects to complete that work at its 46th session. In terms of timing it highly depends on how frequent the CCFL meets in the coming months when this work is completed, likely within three years from now. Consequently, it may take almost 4 years before it is published in the Codex alimentarius. This timeline offers plenty of time for the WHO and PAHO to come up with their own finalized guidelines on FOPNL and possibly their own associated nutrition profiling systems.

But what does all this mean in practice in the future? On the one hand, many national regulators look at this issue beyond its primary objective to provide much more simplified and easier-to-understand nutrition information to consumers which is already present on the back of the packs of foods and drinks, with the aim to convince them to make “healthier” choices at the point of sales. Some of these countries, and arguably WHO itself, would regard these guidelines to mark-up what they call the “non-healthy (i.e. do they mean poisonous?) foods”, or more diplomatically described as “foods containing nutrients of health concerns” with traffic lights color-coding, letter grading, or even stop signs, already there. On the other hand, many other countries would simply view these guidelines as a harmonized tool to define a simplified message to the consumer and expect that one FOPNLtemplate be developed by the CCFL to define a globally common approach truly WTO/TBT-compatible.

It has yet to be determined and thoroughly analysed by food labelling specialists, TBT[3](and maybe SPS[4] – why not, since it is relating to the presence of so called “poisonous” nutrients?) acquainted lawyers, academics, and labelling enforcement authorities, whether the first category of such schemes described above may be viewed as health warnings and/or negative comparative health claims (based on nutrient density/concentration per 100g only) and how they may be even compatible with the existing approved Codex alimentarius Guidelines on Claims. Future will tell.

Although global food and drink industry representative organisations expressed their full support to this new Codex work, it is yet to be assessed what may be the possible economic impacts on many thousands of small and medium size food businesses manufacturing traditional foods (e.g. Parma ham), or foods produced according to secular recipes (e.g. cassoulet, rillettes, many cheeses subject to IGPs, bretzels, etc.), or food consumed at festive occasions (e.g. panettone), or more generally all foods and drinks which constitute a real food cultural heritage. Indeed, consumers and moreover market forces (if not insurance companies, why not?) may well start a ‘natural selection’ between these foods (and the people continuing buying such foods), and some foods from a handful of larger companies which will be the only one able to reformulate their products to “look good” to consumers, once these guidelines are finalised and implemented by countries around the world.

The ability to adapt the nutrient composition of such terroir foods may well be so thin, that the task of (i) reformulation or (ii) being seen by consumer and moreover retailers still with some positive attributes (despite all the FOPNL “signs/simplified information” creating convincing worries about them) may well be an impossible challenge to overcome in the future, unless CCFL grants them with some special treatment (exception) or even a total exemption from such FOPNL schemes. Other foods may also be eligible to such exemptions/exceptions, such as (i) foods already exempted from mandatory nutrition labelling (on the back of pack) in some jurisdictions under national/regional food labelling laws or (ii) foods which do not represent a significant daily source of nutrients whatever is the consumption pattern (quantity of that food eaten per day).

Last but not least, depending on the nature of the “signs/simplified information”, the algorithm to define the necessary underlying nutrition profiles pertaining such FOPNL schemes would be critical to be harmonized also at Codex level otherwise FOPNL won’t be comparable and certainly not (free) trade-compatible (see infra).

Nutrition profiles are viewed as a priority to be addressed by the Codex Nutrition Committee

As mentioned above, the devil lays in details. And CCFL44 took a wise and landmark coherent decision in requesting another Codex body, the Codex alimentarius Committee on Nutrition and Foods for Special Dietary Uses (i.e. CCNFSDU) to look at a potential new work on developing Codex alimentarius guidance on nutrition profiles, especially if they pertained to support the most extreme FOPNL systems described above.

This is very wise and timely from the CCFL44 since the next CCNFSDU session will be held from 4 to 9 December 2017 in Berlin (Germany). The forthcoming discussion in CCNFSDU will be thrilling to review (see next month November 2017 edition of WFFR), as it may immediately pose the question on the necessary scientific advice CCNFSDU will require to review the evidence (i.e. all the evidence) underlying any future nutrition profiling system harmonised at Codex level.

In that regard, it may very well be a perfect topic for the first concrete activation and assignment to the FAO/WHO Joint Expert Meeting on Nutrition (i.e. JEMNU) which may provide insights in performing scientifically based nutritional exposure assessments to serve as an objective basis for future nutrition profiling system. Most of the existing profiling systems (even those developed by WHO and PAHO) are somewhat limiting themselves to a focus primarily on nutrient density in the foods, i.e. the presence of nutrient(s) on a per hundred grams basis and obviously paying attention only to those nutrients they qualify of health concern (i.e. sugars, salt/sodium, fats, saturated fats, etc.).

Based on FAO and WHO long standing rationale and experience in the area of food safety and the application of worldwide accepted food safety risk analysis principles within JECFA, JMPR and JEMRA, any proper and future Codex nutritional risk management decisions to ensure public health protection in the area of nutrition and FOPNL schemes/guidelines should reasonably be expected to be taken on a rationale, transparent and statistically pertinent comparison between a given dietary exposure pattern of nutrients – qualified of “public health concerns” – and the health guidance values of reference attached to them (in the present case the reference values set by WHO and NRVs-NCD set by CCNFSDU). If JEMNU could be entrusted in developing such an approach, it would offer to CCNDSU an occasion to apply its own principles for nutritional risk analysis which are included in the 2017 version of the Codex alimentarius Commission Procedural Manual. There too, the clock is ticking for CCNFSDU and JEMNU, as many regional WHO offices have been field testing their own nutrition profiling systems and WHO announced a completed work on them at some point in 2018.

CCFL embraces the 21st century in looking at e-commerce and new information technologies and four other identified high priorities Carefully prepared by the CCFL44 Chairwoman, all issues implying new work for the Committee were grouped throughout the plenary agenda to the final agenda item on new work. This method saved a lot of time for discussion. Therefore, the WHO proposal on alcohol labelling, the IOFI issues on class names for flavourings, the consumer preference claims paper co-prepared by Turkey and Iran, the Phase II on date marking prepared by New Zealand and all the potential areas of new work identified in the discussion paper prepared by Canada were all handled at once, thus leaving more time on the other issues as well as for more informal discussions on non-retail container labelling (see infra).

Out of the very long list of potential updates or new areas of work for the Committee, CCFL44 finally agreed to develop new work in the limited number of six following areas to be subject to discussion papers which will be considered at the next CCFL session:

(i)                 E-commerce and Internet Sales (led by UK with help of Chile, India, Japan and Ghana) – UK announced its intention to include a project document in this future discussion paper to start a new work on this issue (likely to include also claims and advertising) as of right after the next CCFL session where the decision for new work will be formally adopted;

(ii)                Innovation and use of new technologies to convey information to the consumer in addition to or as a substitute to the labels (led by Canada);

(iii)               Possible improvements of the current provisions in the general standard CODEX STAN 1 on Food Allergen Labelling (led by Australia with the help of UK and USA);

(iv)               Alcohol labelling (led by the Russian Federation with the help of India, EU, Ghana and Senegal);

(v)               Definition and/or criteria to qualify foods viewed as “high in” sugars, fats and sodium and finally (led by Canada with the help of the UK), the so-called HFSS foods, subject to growing taxing policies worldwide, based on WHO General Assembly resolutions;

(vi)               Multipacks of identical prepackaged foods and multipacks of different foods in joint presentations (e.g. cereals on top of a yogurt) (led by Colombia).

All the above items will be subject to a single Codex circular letter seeking comments from all Codex member countries and observer organizations, while each topic will be handled separately by the countries mentioned above and will be presented separately at the next CCFL session likely under separate agenda sub-items.

All the other issues identified as potential future work for the Committee will be kept listed into a revised discussion document prepared by India, for consideration at the next CCFL meeting, as part of a longer-term planning of activities for the Committee. This means that a definition of “vegan” at Codex level and the other aspects mentioned in the previous article in WFRR September 2017 issue, are not expected to be handled by the CCFL in the immediate future.

Non-retail food container labelling: “see you next time”, but good exchanges to make swift progresses before the next session

India reported on the outcome of the electronic working group they co-chaired with the USA and Costa Rica and summarised in the working document for consideration by the CCFL44 plenary. There too, the CCFL44 Chairwoman applied a very smart strategy in seeking general comments from CCFL44 delegations, which all praised India and its co-chairs for their very good document and introductory summary to it. By doing so, CCFL44 saved a lot of time to address the other issues, given that the text of the guidelines on non-retail container labelling would require in all cases to be sent back to another electronic working group.

The Chair therefore suggested to return the document to such a new electronic working group led by the same countries.

This also allowed India and its co-chairs to convene an informal discussion session with all interested parties, held after the end of the plenary of CCFL44. Actually, many delegations and observers remained indeed in the meeting room and therefore the exchanges of views reflected the positions of countries with a balanced geographical representation from Africa, Asia, extended Europe, Middle East, and the Americas.

The informal session was also carried out in a very constructive spirit by all the delegations which intervened and which were given plenty of time and occasions to express their country views they submitted in advance to the CCFL44 meeting recorded in the relevant CCFL44 working document.

India got many constructive suggestions to improve the proposed draft text of the guidelines and assess a high level of support to the text. Countries expressed their preference for a future stand-alone Codex norm (in the form of Codex Guidelines). Also, India took note of the various proposals on the scope, purpose, general principles and moreover the definitions of terms.

On the latter, there were quite intense discussions about the term “Business” as to whether it would be better qualified as “Food Business” with the understanding that the future definition intends to cover all stakeholders in the food chain, with the exception of on-the-farm direct sales operations. Therefore, the future guidelines are meant to be directed to countries and (food business) operators involved at any stage of the food chain, including exporters, transport/shipping, importers, conditioners, packers, handlers, reconditioners as well as processors, B2B retailers, and possibly caterers.

The informal session was also the unique occasion to get some clarification on the type of foods that would be covered by the definition of “Non-retail container”. And this clarification may lead to future drastic consequential structural changes to the mandatory or voluntary information to be placed on the non-retail containers and their accompanying physical and/or virtual/electronic documents or a bit of all of that. India confirmed that the definition of non-retail container would cover (i) prepackaged foods conditioned in a (non-retail) container; (ii) foods in bulk transported in cargoes or larger containers (maybe also including trailers of trucks but this is to be confirmed); and (iii) food and food ingredients which may be used or are clearly intended for use in further processing operations. In that respect, it was definitively clarified that these guidelines would not cover any substance transported in non-retail containers covered by the recently revised General Standard for the Labelling for Food Additive Sold As Such (CODEX STAN 107, Rev. 2016). Flavourings are also considered by the Codex alimentarius as food additives, and thus covered by that specific standard, also reviewed by CCFL at its last session. Then, the informal session went through the other sections of the draft guidelines and addressed questions on the type of information to be provided and on which support they may be conveyed.

India plans to send a kick-off email to convey all Codex members and observers to this new electronic working group, based on the modified version of the proposed draft guidelines coming out from the informal session held after the CCFL44 plenary.

Endorsement from other Codex Committees and work of FAO and WHO in food labelling areas

CCFL44 noted work accomplished by other Codex Committees, in particular on food authenticity and food integrity (and the correlated in-tent to fight food frauds) by the CCFICS and its relevance to some of its work.

CCFL44 endorsed all the proposed provisions on food labelling coming from Codex Commodity Committees i.e., (i) CCPFV with quick-frozen spinach, peas, cauliflower; (ii) CCASIA with Laver products; (iii) CCLAC with Yacon; (iv) CCAFRICA with Unrefined Shea Butter; (v) CCSCH with cumin, dried thyme, black/white/green pepper (with a reference to the ‘name’ of the product instead of ‘nature’), (vi) CCFO with fish oils; (vii) CCNEA with Doogh; and (viii)) CCMMPwith Dairy Permeate Powders.

CCFL44 was unable to take a definitive position to respond to the request for clarification from CCFO on the labelling of what constitutes a high or a mid-oleic acid level in named vegetable oils, in relation to the CCFO discussion on medium/high oleic acid palm oil. CCFL rather returned the question to CCFO in recommending that the issue of deviations in composition of fatty acids for vegetable oils subject to specific names shall be addressed for all named edible vegetable oils horizontally. CCFL noted it could be an issue for future work depending on further technical inputs from the CCFO.

CCFL44 also discussed the reference to the undefined term “probiotics” at Codex level which is found in the Codex Regional (Near East) Standard for Doogh and agreed to inform the next Codex alimentarius Commission and CCNEA that the term “probiotics” is not defined in the Codex system and further guidance may be needed from these bodies. It was also emphasized that the term “probiotics” shall not mislead the consumer. Additional questions were also raised as to whether such a Codex Regional Standard may harm trade on similar products, but named differently in other regions (such as Ayran e.g. in Bulgaria, or Lassi and Labneg in other regions). But the summary of the specifics about this discussion was finally deleted during the adoption of the report of CCFL44.

Chile’s working paper on biofertilizers, biostimulants, and biopesticides was acknowledged by CCFL44 and viewed as a highly technical matter to be first reviewed by the Codex relevant committees on pesticides residues (CCPR) and on contaminants (CCCF) before it comes back to CCFL for further discussion with specific labelling questions.

Date and place of the next CCFL session This will be announced, but CCFL45 is likely to be held in Canada and it was confirmed for May 2019.

[1] CODEX STAN 1, Rev. 2010, General Standard for the Labelling of Prepackaged Foods See http://www.fao.org/fao-who-codexalimentarius/standards/list-of-standards/en/

[2] Executive Director of the Food Import Export and Consumer Protection Directorate - Canadian Food Inspection Agency

[3] Technical Barriers to Trade measures, as defined by the World Trade Organization

[4] Sanitary and PhytoSanitary measures, as defined by the World Trade Organization



Regulatory and Scientific Affairs Counselor