What is the Codex? More Michael Pollan and less Dan Brown–we hope. The little-known Codex Alimentarius Commission was established in 1963 under the joint auspices of the United Nations and the World Health Organization to devise universal guidelines pertaining to food production, safety and marketing. Its resolutions are not binding; rather, member countries use them as frameworks for local legislation and regulation. Codex texts are exhaustive, technical and occasionally compelling, particularly if you happen to be interested in standards for whole and decorticated pearl millet grains. All texts are publicly available in PDF format at the Codex website.
It's no surprise that an organization operating largely beyond public scrutiny for almost 50 years to define what we know about what we eat has attracted the fulsome indictments of the lunatic fringe. In fact, the Commission has a set of FAQs to explicitly debunk some of the more egregious rumors about their practices and intent.
This doesn't mean the Codex is above malignant influence. At a recent meeting of the Codex Committee on Food Labeling in Quebec City, Canada, U.S. representatives lobbied the Committee to adopt language specifying that “GM/GE [Genetically Modified/ Genetically Engineered] foods are [not] in any way different from other foods” and went so far as to suggest that mandatory GMO labeling elsewhere in the world could confuse the consumer and should be prohibited.
That the United States insisted that labeling criteria in other countries could be misleading, despite the fact that voluntary GMO notification is permitted within its own borders, constituted a stunning overreach that alarmed consumer and food safety watchdogs across the country. A broad coalition of more than 80 agricultural groups, policy wonks, farmers' collectives and food activists–among them familiar names like Lundberg Family Farms, the Center for Media and Democracy and Ithaca, New York's famed Moosewood Restaurant–submitted a letter to FDA and USDA reps decrying the draft policy:
The current draft US Codex position [says] that mandatory labeling of food as GE/GM 'is likely to create the impression that the labeled food is in some way different' and would therefore be 'false, misleading or deceptive.' […] We find it hard to understand how FDA and USDA can argue to Codex that mandatory labeling is inherently false and misleading, but voluntary labeling, which is permitted in the United States, is not. We are, in fact, concerned that the current US position appears to seek to establish precedents at Codex that would make it difficult to label food as non-GM in the US.
As the Monsantos and Cargills of the world continue to parry demands for mandatory GM labeling and rebuff notions that GM products are problematic to human and environmental health, you would be excused for suspecting the FDA and USDA were lobbying on behalf of agribusiness, rather than the public whom they where chartered to protect. The 64th session of the Executive Committee of the Codex Alimentarius will be called to order in Geneva, Switzerland on June 29th. Labeling standards proposed for adoption appear on the official agenda.