Codex Alimentarius Committee on Food Labelling to adopt revised international standards on food labelling

Date: Oct 16, 2017

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

The next session of the Codex alimentarius Committee on Food Labelling (Asunción, Paraguay; 16-20 October 2017) is reaching out a turning point in revising important parts of the current international standard on food labelling[1] on (i) date marking and (ii) labelling requirements for non-re-tail food containers (both covering B2B food and B2B food ingredients labelling). CCFL44 is also expected to agree on developing new international guidelines to try to further harmonize the way countries develop Front-Of-Pack nutrition labelling schemes, a landmark effort to avoid the on-going epidemics of adoption of very different national legislation and standards, which constitute health-related technical barriers to trade. CCFL44 will also review how it may address in the future the growing development of “Consumer preference claims” (e.g. vegan), and finally review possible new labelling areas where further international Codex alimentarius guidance or even more specific labelling standardized provisions may be developed in the coming years. CCFL44 will also endorse labelling provisions from other Codex Commodity Committees included in food standards they elaborate.

Date marking: the ultimate debate

Although the last CCFL session held in May 2016 agreed already on a revised draft text for most of the section on date marking and despite the fact that the agenda of the forthcoming CCFL session makes clear that the only remaining open issue for discussion relates to a list of exemptions for several food categories from any mandatory date marking, the comments from countries and observer organizations sent in response to a Codex circular letter on the text agreed at the last CCFL session are covering all sections of such text. It is yet to be seen how the Chair of the CCFL44 will handle this deli-cate matter. Indeed, there is no apparent consensus on how the Committee is to address all those comments and how it will find a way to resolve the out-standing issues on those exemptions. Those exemptions have been in the Codex General Standard on Labelling of Prepackaged Food since its very first adoption in 1985. They have never been challenged since then and have been implemented in many national jurisdictions. The proposal put forward by the USA to develop a list of objective criteria by CCFL in coordination with the Codex Committee on Food Hygiene (CCFH) may be the most rational basis for making progress on the is-sue and may allow to consider some other foods to be eligible for such date marking exemptions. It should be reminded that any business operator may place date marking on its food products even in the absence of such mandatory requirements, especially a best before date where the products pre-serve all their organoleptic properties and match consumer expectations in terms of quality, nutrition and taste properties.

Non-retail food container labelling: solving an unresolved issue, discussed by CCFL the last time in… 1983!

Based on the outcome of the work of an inter-session working group established at the last session of the CCFL, the forthcoming session will review paragraph by paragraph the proposed text which aims to provide guidance on how countries may develop specific mandatory and voluntary requirements on (i) foods not intended for direct sales to the final consumer and (ii) foods and food ingredients intended for further processing or entering recipes of final foods.

The text under consideration addresses the required information on the label of the prepackaged food or food ingredients and other information (mandatory and voluntary) which may be provided through shipments accompanying document.

This issue is not new. It was discussed by the CCFL 34 years ago, back in 1983! At that time, no consensus was reached. It is yet to be seen where the debate ends this time. It is also still unclear where the text, once finalized, would be placed in the Codex alimentarius set of standards, either as a stand-alone guidance document (i.e. Codex guide-lines) or as an amendment to the Codex general standard on labelling of pre-packaged foods. It is expected that the debate will address the issue on the required level of information given to final food business operators, enabling them to fulfill their obligations on foods intended for the final consumer. The suggestion to impose nutrition label-ling on food ingredients intended for further processing is likely to be questioned.

Front-Of-Pack Nutrition Labelling (FOPNL): towards global guidance and maybe further harmonization

This agenda item to review a massive discussion paper on this very politically driven topic will certainly represent the climax of the next CCFL session. The discussion paper is the result of the work of an intersession electronic working group co-chaired by Costa Rica and New Zealand. The electronic working group has been the occasion for many countries and observer organizations to in-form the CCFL with national or private FOPNL systems developed or under development. The discussion paper: (i) reviews the definition of FOPNL, (ii) reviews the main types of mandatory and voluntary FOPBNL, (iii) makes an attempt to list the main criteria identified to define such FOPNL, (iv) consolidates the list of on-going re-searches or studies on the development, aim and efficacy of such FOPNL schemes; (v) reviews the various opinions on how CCFL could develop guidance to countries (e.g. amending the current Guidelines on Nutrition Labelling or develop a new guidelines); and, lastly,(vi) assesses the barriers or limitations of such FOPNL systems.

The core proposal suggests to develop specific guidelines that may or may not be included within the existing Codex Guidelines on Nutrition La-belling. The decision will be taken after the drafting work on the new guidelines is completed. Therefore, the forthcoming CCFL is asked to take a decision to develop a new international standard (Codex guidelines) intended to provide guidance to countries on how developing FOPNL, and is not in-tended to provide harmonization to such FOPNL. As such, the proposal from this electronic working group is not challenging the principle of such national developments (e.g. in the EU, FOPNL is still voluntary). Furthermore it will not address, if not worthen the trade barrier impediments (FOPNL are used primarily for “health” reasons and based on WHO policies and non-binding recommendations thus falling under the WTO SPS Agreement, al-though the issue is currently considered by the WTO TBT Committee). It does not cover the legal issues related to the nature of FOPNL (such as health claims or color-coded system based on nutrient density (i.e. per 100 gram basis) and lack of scientific nutritional exposure assessment).

The CCFL debates are expected to be lengthy and passionate on this proposal which aims at de-fining at Codex level – and therefore even more legitimating the WHO own policies for mandatory FOPNL and nutrition profiling attached to them -

(i)   General principles, (ii) Purpose and Scope, (iii) Definition of FOPNL, (iv) Development and implementation of the FOPNL system (i.e. steps to follow), (v) Governance of the FOPNL system and (vi) Monitoring and evaluation. At first sight, the suggested content of such Codex guidelines could be regarding as WHO and FAO Guidance textbook rather than a Codex alimentarius standard which are meant to be always consistent with WTO SPS and TBT Agreements rights and obligations. In other terms, this topic would see an underlying de-bate on whether Codex CCFL is to implement WHO recommendations or ensure fair practices in food trade and protect consumer’s health. Put oth-erwise, behind this discussion is clearly to discuss whether national FOPNL schemes are trade-com-patible or not.

“Consumer Preference Claims”: a try to sort out what they really encompass (e.g. vegan etc.)

This agenda item is also expected to unchain some passion on how Codex alimentarius could provide a reasonable framework and guidance to national authorities to regulate or at least canalize the on-going epidemics of claims flourishing on food labels around the globe about properties, benefits, ethical, environmental or personal beliefs claimed to be respected by such foods, in the absence of clear definitions of such claims.

This discussion paper has been prepared jointly by Turkey and Iran as a follow-up to the failed at-tempt at the last CCFL by the international community of food labelling regulators to agree upon the revision of the existing Codex guidelines on Halal Foods. CCFL broadened the development of Co-dex guidelines on statement such as “vegan”, “vegetarian”, “natural”, “pure”. These guidelines aim at framing consumers preferences for “ more -to-the-root” foods, rather than highly processed foods. Although not specifically mentioned in the discussion paper, it may also be an occasion for the CCFL to discuss other trends such as animal welfare labelling, environmental impacts or footprints (e.g. water used or carbon dioxide emissions per kilogram of produced foods). It may also be the first step before CCFL revisits the issue of religious-belief based food labelling (e.g. Halal, Kosher, etc.) at one point in time in the future. It may also resuscitate unintentionally the issue of the labelling of food ingredients obtained from genetically modified, enhanced or bioengineered plants or animals, with its correlated issue on cloned organisms. It may also address to some extent country of origin.

Nevertheless, the current proposal to the forth-coming CCFL is to amend the current Codex General Guidelines on Claims with the objective to (i) develop a definition of consumer preference (including the issue of type of ingredients used, production methods used, extraneous values of the foods, etc.) (ii) restrict any consumer preference claim to “positive unequivocal objective evidences” (involving accredited conformity assessment activities and reports of validated tests methods) and (iii) recall the basic principles al-ready included in the Codex guidelines on claims and the Codex General Standard on Labelling of Prepackaged foods, that any consumer preference claim “should not be described or presented in a manner that is false, misleading or deceptive or likely to create erroneous impression regarding its character in any respect and should be justifiable.”

No doubt that these discussions will be very interesting as it would also need to ensure that the possible development of such future Codex guide-lines are being kept consistent with the WTO TBT, Rules or Origin and TRIPS Agreements and any WTO related rules, standards and recommendations on conformity assessment.

Future work of CCFL: an attempt to reactive issues discussed and unresolved in the past (e.g. “natural”) and address new ones (e.g. alcohol labelling)

This discussion paper prepared by Canada, the current chairing country of CCFL, aims at listing all the areas where Canada believes CCFL could further work on. It covers some aspects already on the agenda of CCFL44 such as consumer preference claims (e.g. natural) or the further guidance to help countries to build up their national rules on FOPNL (see above). This discussion paper also lists areas of potential further modernization of other sections of the Codex General Standard on Labelling of Prepackaged Foods. For example it includes a reference to “advertising”, specific additional aspects related to date marking for some specific products (e.g. frozen foods) or linked to storage instructions after opening, ethical considerations, date marking on primary and secondary packaging, use of new information technologies to convey food information to consumers (not mentioned but clearly a reference to Quick Response (QR) codes, synthetic DNA-markers, etc.).

Allergen labelling section may need some up-date to cope with new scientific and food technology development on some ingredients (e.g. highly refined starch hydrolysates do not contain allergenic wheat, as recognized in the EU legislation for example).

The discussion paper suggests to survey countries to assess the degree of consistency of national legislation with the Codex general standard on food labelling with regards to the longstanding and never challenged provisions of information for some ingredients through class names (e.g. modified starches).

Finally it also refers to (i) (added) Sugar labelling , (ii) Nutritional/Ingredientlabelling (trans-fats, palm oil, PHOs…), (iii) a definition of “high in” fat, sugar, and sodium (understanding here nutrition profiles), (iv) further guidance on existing health warnings ( e.g. aspartame/phenyl ketonuric/phenylalanine, polyols/laxative effects, caffeine/pregnant women, etc.), (v) internet sales/e-commerce, (vi) use of new food and processing technologies. Last but not least it also suggests to develop further Codex guidance on alcohol (i.e. ethanol) labelling on the degree of alcohol, (FOP) energy labelling and health warnings to general population and to pregnant women subpopulation, an issue which is of high priority for WHO.

It is not totally clear whether the forthcoming CCFL is in a position to define any concrete action for a strategic list and planning for such new works on the basis of the discussion paper. Indeed, Canada concludes the document simply by suggesting CCFL to give consideration to the items presented in the discussion paper to define “long term planning of the work of CCFL”. However, several proposals pursue clearly controversial political objectives; which are co-mingled with legitimate questions on gaps, needs for updates, and new areas where new guidance may be needed at the inter-national level.

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

CCFL will note discussions from other Codex bodies, in particular the new work by the Codex Committee on Food Import and Export Inspection and Certification Systems (CCFICS) on food authenticity and food integrity (and the correlated in-tent to fight food frauds).

CCFL will also respond to other Codex Commit-tees on e.g. 1) CCFH proposal to merge two existing paragraphs of the Codex general standard on labelling of prepackaged foods on date marking justifying exemptions from mandatory date marking based on stability of quality and safety of such foods; 2) CCFO requests on what might constitute a high or mid oleic acid level in vegetable oils, in relation to CCFO discussion on high oleic acid palm oil.

CCFL will also try to finalise the revision of a specific descriptor under the Class names related to flavoring(s) and the use of the terms flavor(s) and try to align the current descriptive note referring to “natural identical”, “artificial” or “natural” with the revised terminology adopted in the definitions section of the Codex Guidelines for the Use of Flavourings (CAC/GL 66-2008) and the correlated re-vision of the terms used in the “General Standard for the Labelling of Food Additives When Sold As Such” (CODEX STAN 107-1981, Rev. 2016).

Finally, CCFL will review the proposed provisions on food labelling coming from Codex Commodity Committees developing Codex food vertical standards; e.g., 1) CCPFV with quick-frozen spinach, peas, cauliflower; 2) CCASIA with Laver products; 3) CCLAC with Yacon; 4)CCAFRICA with Unrefined Shea Butter; 5 ) CCSCH with cumin, dried thyme, back/white/green pepper, 6) CCFO with fish oils; 7) CCNEA with doogh; and 8) CCMMP with Dairy Permeate Powders.

[1] CODEX STAN 1 – 1985, Rev. 2010, General Standard for the Labelling of Prepackaged Foods – See http://www.fao.org/fao-who-codexalimentarius/standards/list-of-standards/en/


Regulatory and Scientific Affairs Counselor