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WTO Think-In

The setting of food standards is intrinsically complex. It is not just that food-standards science?like all science?constantly evolves, or that much is influenced by commercial imperatives. It's also that humans want to have great confidence in their food. If they find out that commercial or political considerations are taking priority over health concerns, they are apt to get angry. This rule applies in all cultures and all times. It is no surprise that in accepting control over food standards, the WTO has picked up a very hot potato.

Since as early as the 1950s, we've needed an international body to adjudicate difficult disputes over pesticides, labeling, additives, veterinary residues such as hormones, and genetically engineered foods. In 1994 GATT technically gave greater "influence" in trade disputes over these standards to the Codex Alimentarius [Food Code] Commission, for which two UN organizations (the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization) are responsible.

But even before GATT was signed and the WTO created, research suggested that Codex was not in a fit democratic state to warrant public confidence. A study found that:

- nearly a quarter of the participants in Codex committees were from the same large international companies whose products were being assigned standards;

- there were twenty-six representatives from public interest groups, compared to 662 industry representatives;

- most representation came from rich, northern countries (over 60 percent were from Europe and North America). The poor southern countries were dramatically underrepresented?only 7 percent of participants came from Africa, and 10 percent from Latin America;

- of the participants in the working group on food additives and contaminants, 39 percent represented transnational corporations or industry federations; and,

- of the 374 participants on the committee on pesticide residue levels, seventy-five represented agrochemical and food corporations. Only eighty represented the interests of developing countries.

Despite requests to "clean up" these inadequacies, the GATT Secretariat did not act. Subsequently, officials and companies became sensitive to these criticisms, and some countries now hold national pre-meetings with industry, consumers, and government officials. However, practices at the Codex meetings themselves are unchanged. At the 1997 food labeling committee, the US delegation comprised eight representatives from government, ten from industry, and three from NGOs.

The issue of scientific judgement is particularly sensitive. GATT stipulated that disputes be arbitrated on grounds of "sound science," but consumer groups argue that science is not the straightforward arbiter it is assumed to be. Whose research? What questions framed it? Who funded it? Is it publicly available? Given extensive agrochemical company participation, for example, who could have confidence in Codex's July 1999 decision to relax Maximum Residue Limits (MRLs) for the organophosphates chlorpyrifos and methidathion?

The argument between the US and the EU over hormone use in meat, for fattening, is illustrative. Since the early 1980s, the EU has implemented a hormone ban. Using the WTO trade-dispute mechanism, the USA contested the EU rulings.

In 1997 the WTO, despite Codex's initially deferring to consumer pressure, sided with the US and fined the EU. (Codex adopted its standard on hormones by a vote of 33 to 29, with seven abstentions. As one review put it, this was "hardly a ringing endorsement of the safety of eating hormone-process meat.")

Although Codex has become immensely significant, it is a classic example of "agency capture," an institution of the state (or multi-states) that has been weakened or even taken over by commercial interests. Codex has a very narrow conception of the food-and-health connection, especially the precautionary principle that inspires consumer confidence.

It should be unthinkable that another round of talks be considered without wholesale reform of how Codex works.