Over the last two years, I have written extensively about the Codex Alimentarius guidelines and how they relate specifically to vitamin and mineral supplements, food irradiation, and the use of Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH).
I have also detailed the history and workings of the international organization as well as many of the current day to day manifestations of Codex guidelines as they appear in domestic policy.
However, there is yet another area in which Codex guidelines will play a major role in the development of food policy – namely, the proliferation of Genetically Modified Food.
The Codex committee that serves as the main battleground for the consideration of GM food is the Codex Committee on Food Labeling. This committee is extremely relevant due to the fact that it can effectively reduce the power of the consumer to virtually nothing if it decides not to force companies or countries to label their GM food, thus removing the ability of the consumer to boycott and/or avoid those products. While it is well-known that public sentiment is unimportant to those at the top, governments and corporations tend to pay more attention when votes and sales reflect that sentiment. However, if Codex continues on its’ way to allowing unlabelled GM food onto the international market, the repercussions of consumer reaction will be entirely neutralized.
A brief discussion of the history of Codex in terms of GM food is necessary here to understand the direction that the organization is moving towards in regards to it.
For most of the seventeen years that Codex member countries have debated the safety of genetic modification of the food supply, the result has been little or no progress for one side or the other.
In 1993, at the behest of the Codex Commission, the CCFL agreed to begin working on the labeling aspect of GM food. Interestingly enough, the CCFL asked the United States, the country that was the most militant in its support of genetic modification, to develop a paper that would guide the committee’s discussion at the following session. When this session arrived, there was a flurry of opinions tossed around from several different countries. The most sensible position was that all GM foods should be labeled under any circumstances. Yet other countries, especially the pro-Gm ones, argued that labeling should only be required when there is the introduction of health or safety concerns, allergens, or when the food is significantly different from its traditional counterpart. This is a debate that largely continues until this day.
The concept of “substantial equivalence” versus “process-based” labeling has also become one of the most hotly contested issues within the Codex GM food labeling debate. Process-based labeling simply means that the driving factor behind the labeling guidelines is the process by which the food is created, grown, or otherwise produced. Therefore, the qualifying factor for labeling GM food would be the process of genetic modification itself, forcing all GM food to be labeled as such. This is essentially the mandatory labeling of all GM food. When this concept was first introduced in 2001, it was supported by such countries as the European Union, India, and Norway. Its staunchest opponents, of course, were the United States and Canada. Although this method of labeling standards was by far the most sensible if one were concerned about food safety and consumer rights of choice, it has been all but abandoned since the brief discussion at its introduction. The attention then has necessarily turned to the competing set of standards known as “substantial equivalence.”
“Substantial equivalence” guidelines are by far the most onerous means by which to label GM food outside of the scheme of voluntary labeling (such as what Canada has already pushed for).
This set of standards not only provides loopholes through which GM food may enter the food supply, but also opens the door to total acceptance of GM food absolutely free of labeling. The idea behind the substantial equivalence labeling method is that the GM food will be compared to its conventional counterpart in terms of safety and composition.
The food would then only require a label if it was found that there was a substantial difference between the GM product and the natural food or there were an introduction of a common allergen through the process of genetic modification. While at first it may seem that there is a legitimate consideration of safety under these principles, such an impression is far from the truth.
Several problems exist with the concept of substantial equivalence. First, as is often the case with government and bureaucratic initiatives, the semantics of the term “substantial equivalence” leaves the door open to the possible acceptance of virtually all GM food. While I will discuss this aspect further in future articles where the accepted Codex guidelines for testing GM food is mentioned, brief mention is still required early on in order to understand the dangers of the use of this labeling standard.
In order for a food to require labeling, it must do one of two things – introduce a new allergen or be significantly different from its “traditional counterpart.” The former requirement refers to the introduction of something along the lines of the peanut gene or the introduction of another common allergy to a food, thereby causing a potential allergic reaction to the food after consuming it. However, there are thousands of food allergies besides peanuts. Codex itself admits in its GM food test protocol that the determination of what may be an allergy is a very difficult procedure. It says “At present, there is no definitive test that can be relied upon to predict allergic response in humans to a newly expressed protein.”
Although the guidelines go on to say that these potential allergens should be tested on a case-by-case basis, it is clear that the testing mechanisms being recommended are not necessarily geared for determining the potential allergenicity of newly introduced GM foods. Especially on the scale that is needed to deal with the immense diversity of GM prototypes being introduced and the even greater variety of individual allergies that exist in the population.
It should also be noted that while there is some discussion of known allergens, there is no in-depth discussion of the very real possibility of new and previously unknown allergens being introduced due to the process of genetic modification. Indeed, the monitoring of the food once it enters the food chain is only occasionally mentioned throughout the Codex “Foods Derived From Modern Biotechnology” document and those mentions are vague and open-ended. So the question that follows is whether or not all of these potential allergens will be labeled as such, or if only the most common ones will be considered.
Second, the requirement that a food must be compared and found substantially equivalent to its “traditional counterpart” (natural food) is misleading as well. To begin with, one must ask the question of what exactly “substantial equivalence” means. Quite obviously, the term does not mean that the GM product must be identical. This, in itself would negate the process of genetic modification.
Therefore, differences must necessarily be accepted. However, it is not at all clear just to what level these differences may exist and still be considered equivalent and/or safe. Nowhere is “substantial equivalence” clearly defined. The criterion for what is substantial and what is not is left completely open and subjective.
The closest thing there is to a definition is made by Nick Tomlinson of the UK Food Standards Agency in his report, “Joint FAO/WHO Expert Consultation on Foods Derived from Biotechnology” where he references the 1996 expert consultation where substantial equivalence was defined as “being established by a demonstration that the characteristics assessed for the genetically modified organism, or the specific food product derived there from, are equivalent to the same characteristics of the conventional comparator.”
Here again the term equivalence is used with the connotation that equivalent does not translate into identical or same. Tomlinson makes this clear when he says:
The levels and variation for characteristics in the genetically modified organism must be within the natural range of variation for those characteristics considered in the comparator and be based upon an appropriate analysis of data.By not exactly being descriptive as to how wide a range this “natural range of variation” may be, it is apparent that substantial equivalence does not correlate to identical or even anything that would remotely be considered the “same.” Indeed, the very nature of genetic modification precludes this as a possibility to begin with.
The concept of substantial equivalence is unfortunately the theory of labeling requirements adopted by Codex. It is also very similar to the criteria used in the United States and Canada.
As to be expected in such pro-GM countries as the United States, the GM labeling requirements are even less restrictive than those of Codex. For the most part, labeling of GM foods in the United States and Canada is completely voluntary.
This voluntary labeling scheme based on the concept of substantial equivalence is both a prime example of the weakness of both standards as well as a dark omen as to the direction of Codex guidelines as they continue to be developed.
 MacKenzie, Anne. A. “The Process of Developing Labeling Standards For GM Foods In The Codex Alimentarius.” AgBioForum, Vol.3, Number 4, 2000. pp. 203-208. http://www.agbioforum.org/v3n4/v3n4a04-mackenzie.htm Accessed May 24, 2010.
 “Canadians Deserve To Know What They Are Eating: Food Safety Must Come Before Trade.” Canadian Health Coalition, Media Advisory, May 1-4, 2001. http://www.healthcoalition.ca/codex.html
 “Safety aspects of genetically modified foods of plant origin, a joint FAO/WHO consultation on foods derived from biotechnology, Geneva, Switzerland 29 May – 2 June 2000”. World Health Organization. http://www.who.int/foodsafety/publications/biotech/ec_june2000/en/index.html
 MacKenzie, Anne. A. “The Process of Developing Labeling Standards For GM Foods In The Codex Alimentarius.” AgBioForum, Vol.3, Number 4, 2000. pp. 203-208. http://www.agbioforum.org/v3n4/v3n4a04-mackenzie.htm May 24, 2010.
 “Food Derived From Modern Biotechnology.” Codex Alimentarius 2nd Edition. P.20 ftp://ftp.fao.org/codex/Publications/Booklets/Biotech/Biotech_2009e.pdf
 Tomlinson, Nick. “Joint FAO/WHO Expert Consultation on Foods Derived from Biotechnology.” 2003. ftp://ftp.fao.org/es/esn/food/Bio-03.pdf Accessed May 24, 2010.
 “Guidance For Industry: Voluntary Labeling Indicating Whether Foods Have or Have Not Been Developed Using Biotengineering: Draft Guidance.” Food and Drug Administration. January 2001. http://www.fda.gov/Food/
Read other articles by Brandon Turbeville here.
Brandon Turbeville is an author out of Florence, South Carolina. He has a Bachelor's Degree from Francis Marion University and is the author of three books, Codex Alimentarius -- The End of Health Freedom, 7 Real Conspiracies, and Five Sense Solutions and Dispatches From a Dissident. Turbeville has published over 190 articles dealing on a wide variety of subjects including health, economics, government corruption, and civil liberties. Brandon Turbeville's podcast Truth on The Tracks can be found every Monday night 9 pm EST at UCYTV. He is available for radio and TV interviews. Please contact activistpost (at) gmail.com.
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