In 2010, food-borne illnesses caused by hazardous microbes, chemicals, metals and other contaminants resulted in an estimated 175,000 deaths in South-East Asia. In India alone, they cost an estimated US$28 billion each year, which is 0.5 percent of gross domestic product. Many countries in the region lack the capacity to meet the international food safety and quality standards established by the Codex Alimentarius Commission. While this lack of capacity to monitor and regulate food safety could lead to unsafe domestic food supplies, it could also cause problems in international food trade. In South Asia, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India, which is well versed in Codex standards and practices, has frequently quarantined ginger, tea and other foods imported from Nepal and Bhutan and has rejected results from their food safety laboratories. This has resulted in considerable mistrust and a lack of communication among the food safety authorities of the three countries.
Towards a Solution
The Codex Alimentarius, or Food Code, is a collection of internationally adopted, uniform food standards that are used to build sound national food control systems. All member States have a duty to ensure that Codex standards and guidelines are developed and updated to ensure that people have healthy diets and safe food. Nevertheless, in low- and middle-income countries, food safety and Codex activities are not given priority and lack investments.
The Codex Trust Fund (CTF) was established by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) to support member States in building strong, sustainable national capacity to engage in Codex. The CTF provides a funding window for low- and middle-income countries to support strengthening Codex activities at the country and intercountry levels through individual or group applications. Bhutan, India and Nepal carried out a diagnosis of their Codex capacity using the FAO/WHO Diagnostic Tool for Assessing Status of National Codex Programmes, which helped them to identify gaps and priority areas for improvement. These countries prepared their applications using a national consultative process. In collaboration with FAO, WHO facilitated coordination among these countries during the application process. The project proposal was submitted in the online system by India on behalf of the three countries. The objectives were to strengthen the National Codex Structures by effectively engaging all stakeholders in codex activities and standard-setting processes, improving the scientific and technical capacity of national experts to contribute to the Codex and promoting subregional cooperation. With this strategic and innovative approach, three friendly neighbouring countries were able to come together, particularly as they share a traditionally interdependent economic relationship and cross-border trade. This project provided them with an opportunity to develop trust, confidence and mutual understanding through bilateral and multilateral activities in order to move towards the development and harmonization of regional Codex standards.
The food safety authorities of the three countries had to agree on common objectives for the group application. The WHO demonstrated leadership in facilitating the complex project’s development and implementation. From the beginning, it provided technical support for the submission of the group application, in coordination with the respective WHO country offices. In addition, funds were channelled through its offices for implementation. This was the first multi-country project approved by the CTF at the global level and the first CTF project in Asia designed to promote South-South cooperation. This project will further strengthen national codex activities in participating countries through intercountry collaborations, focusing on common positions in setting codex standards. A total of $464,120 has been allocated by CTF, WHO and participating countries for the project’s implementation, and the future scope of group applications will depend on its success. The WHO has therefore been providing technical backstopping and coordination with headquarters and partner agencies.
Although many countries in the Codex Asian region will benefit from CTF support in the future, several have not been successful in preparing and submitting robust applications. A side event on CTF was organized at the Codex Committee for Asia meeting in Goa, India, held in September 2019, to help member countries better understand the application process and characteristics of successful applications. Bhutan, India and Nepal shared their experience in preparing their group application, recommendations for better outcomes in the application process and their progress in implementing the group project. This project led to the transfer of knowledge and practice among countries to strengthen South-South technical cooperation. As a result, Myanmar submitted a group application on behalf of Cambodia, the Lao People’s Democratic Public and Myanmar, with assistance from FAO and WHO. In coordination with FAO, WHO facilitated member States’ participation in the Codex Committee for Asia meeting and international food safety conferences held in 2019.
By helping to create a sustainable platform to allow food safety authorities in these three countries to work together, this project will potentially have a significant impact for a relatively low cost. In addition, all three countries feel a strong sense of ownership in this effort.