UN Commission Poised to Adopt New Labeling Guidelines for GMO Food

Dr. Phil Bereano

By the close of its 39th session, the United Nations’ Codex Alimentarius Commission was poised to adopt Labeling Guidelines for GMO foods that will provide some protection from the World Trade Organization for national-scale GMO-labeling programs around the world. The Non-GMO Project sponsored activist Phil Bereano’s participation in this session, and in so doing helped to ensure that the voices of the Activist and NGO communities would be heard, in an industry-dominated debate.

Find below Dr. Bereano’s report on the outcome of the session, with links to the relevant Codex Alimentarius documents:

Codex Committee on Food Labeling
39th Session, Quebec, Canada
May 2011

Labeling of GE Foods

The Codex Alimentarius Commission is a somewhat obscure UN agency (joint between the World Health Organization and the Food and Agricultural Organization) which sets international norms for food safety and the food trade. It operates through a number of issue-area committees.

After nearly two decades of contentious debate, the Codex Committee on Food Labeling has finally adopted a Guideline on labeling of GE foods. Although the text is not as strong as many countries and NGOs would have liked, the adopted language does provide guidance to countries which have requested it. Since the WTO decided in 1995 that it would follow Codex rules in international trade disputes, this text would also appear to provide protection against a WTO challenge to a national labeling scheme that is consistent with it.

Officially, the text must be adopted by the Codex Commission at its July meeting in Geneva before it is final; this is generally expected to occur, but not guaranteed. As with all Codex texts, this guideline is voluntary; no country is obligated to adopt it.

The Non-GMO Project supported my attendance at this meeting, enabling me to continue the work I have been doing at Codex for over a decade.





The 19th session of the Codex Alimentarius Commission (1991) originated work on this topic “to provide guidance on how the fact that a food was derived from modern biotechnology could be made known to the consumer.” Although this seems like a very straightforward idea, and although many countries were already on the way to requiring some sort of labeling, there was tremendous resistance to such work, primarily by the USA. (It will, perhaps, not be a surprise to know that the US has historically exercised an outsized influence over the operations of the Codex.) The Codex Committee on Food Labeling (CCFL) began work on the topic in 1993. In 1996, the Executive Committee of the CAC disappointingly noted that “the claimed right to know was ill defined and variable and in this respect could not be used by Codex as the primary basis of decision making on appropriate labeling.”

For almost two decades this issue has been debated, moving forward and suffering setbacks. In recent years, a workshop in Oslo compiled a listing of various labeling actually being followed by different countries at that time (2007); subsequently, a Background Paper was prepared by Nigeria/Canada/US enumerating Codex texts that are relevant to the issue; and a Working Group met in Accra, Ghana (2008) to try to move along a text. In addition to the yearly CCFL meetings, the Chair (Paul Mayers of Canada) conducted a two-day facilitated Work Session in Brussels last November (where I was one of only 2 NGO delegates, other than the industry people) which isolated the issues and made the various concerns explicit; it agreed on a rudimentary text based on reference to existing Codex documents, to be decided upon at this meeting (under a Commission deadline to complete the work this spring). The report of that meeting is at ftp://ftp.fao.org/codex/ccfl39/fl39_13e.pdf



As you can see in Appendix 3 of the above report, three options were sent forward for CCFL’s consideration—differing only in how they would present the relevant existing Codex texts—by name, by reproduction of the relevant sections only, or by reproduction of the full documents. (Many developing countries wanted the whole texts because of problems they experience trying to access materials on-line.) These portions of the document would provide the “guidance” function; it is the language of the “Purpose” section and of the “Considerations” which could provide WTO protection.

Given these materials—strenuously fought over (and Mayers was a skillful chair, both in Brussels and here in Quebec, not even favoring the Canadian position on various matters)—we were not going to get an outcome that a green NGO activist would have authored. The US was successful in avoiding any clear new rule (eg, that nations had the right to require GE labeling), insisting that existing texts were sufficient (hence the listing). But sufficient for what? Sufficient to allow labeling, which is what would provide WTO protection. But the wording is not robust.

The final text was an amended version of Option 1, with the Codex references in hyperlinks to make it easy for country officials to access. (And I argued that transparency required it as well, since the Codex site is not the easiest to navigate, as some of you undoubtedly know.) Some comments by me are below the text.

Here’s what was adopted:


Proposed Draft Compilation of Codex texts relevant to labeling of foods derived from modern biotechnology

  1. 1. Purpose:

The purpose of this document is only to recall and assemble in a single document some important elements of guidance from Codex texts, which are relevant to labelling of foods derived from modern biotechnology.

  1. 2. Considerations:

Different approaches regarding labelling of foods derived from modern biotechnology are used. Any approach implemented by Codex members should be consistent with already adopted Codex provisions. This document is not intended to suggest or imply that foods derived from modern biotechnology are necessarily different from other foods simply due to their method of production.

3. Compilation of Relevant Codex Texts

3.1 The Codex General Standard for the Labelling of Prepackaged Foods, (Codex Stan 1-1985); and particularly, Sections 3.1, 3.2, 4.1.1, 4.1.2, 4.2.2, 7.1

3.2 The Codex General Guidelines on Claims (CAC/GL 1-1979); and particularly, Sections 1.2, 1.3, Section 2 – Definition of Claim, 3.3, 3.5, 4.1, 5.1(iii), 5.1(iv), 5.1(v), 5.1(vi)

3.3 The Codex Guidelines for Use of Nutrition and Health Claims (CAC/GL 23-1997); Introduction and particularly, Sections 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 1.4 and 1.5

3.4 The Codex Guidelines for the Production, Processing, Labelling and Marketing of Organically Produced Foods (CAC/GL 32-1999); and particularly Section 1.5

3.5 General Guidelines on the Use of the term Hallal (CAC/GL 24-1997)

3.6 Working Principles for Risk Analysis for Food Safety for Application by Governments (CAC/GL 62-2007)

3.7 Principles for Risk Analysis of Foods Derived from Modern Biotechnology (CAC/GL 44-2003); and particularly, Paragraph 19.

3.8 Guidelines for the Conduct of Food Safety Assessments of Foods Derived from Recombinant-DNA plants (CAC/GL 45-2003)

3.9 Guidelines for the Conduct of Food Safety Assessments of Foods Derived from Recombinant-DNA microorganisms (CAC/GL 46-2003)

3.10 Guideline for the Conduct of Food Safety Assessment of Foods derived from Recombinant- DNA Animals (CAC/GL 68-2008)




  1. The Purpose section—the inclusion of the word “guidance” makes a direct connection back to the mandate from the Commission: “to provide guidance on how the fact that a food was derived from modern biotechnology could be made known to the consumer.” In other words, it can be read that Codex is promoting GE labeling. Thus, if there were a WTO challenge, the defending nation can argue that the Codex has authorized/ accepted/normalized the labeling of GE foods as such.
  1. The “Considerations

(a) The first sentence said, in the draft, that the parties “acknowledged” the various approaches to GE labeling. The US repeatedly objected to this language, saying that it is not the business of Codex to validate whatever any nation does or doesn’t do. Of course, “acknowledge” does not mean “endorse,” as I and others pointed out. This seems like a rear-guard ideological position by the US, and since the sense of the sentence is not really changed by the elimination, countries finally seemed to just let the US get its way;

(b) Different approaches are noted; thus, there is no labeling scheme that is OK and none that is interdicted.

(c) “consistent with Codex provisions”—this is fairly standard sort of language, and in my view perhaps the most important provision referenced is, using the words of Consumers International:

The Principles for the Risk Analysis of Foods Derived from Modern Biotechnology (CAC/GL 44-2003) clearly state that labeling can be used as a risk management option to deal with scientific uncertainties associated with the risk assessment of GE/GM foods: “18. Risk managers should take into account the uncertainties in the risk assessment and implement appropriate measures to manage these uncertainties. 19. Risk management measures may include, as appropriate, food labeling, conditions for market approval and post-market monitoring” (pars 18, 19 in CAC/GL 44-2003). [emphasis supplied]

(d) “not intended to suggest”—another sentence that was an obsession of the US. It is fine that this document doesn’t make a distinction between engineered and non-engineered foods, since many of the Codex texts referenced already do, especially those that came out of the seven years of work of the Task Force on Biotech Foods held in Japan (and included in the listing above). This is, after all, a document about labeling, not biology, so there was no need to re-argue whether GE foods posed risks; our position is that we won that debate when Codex set up the special Task Force, and confirmed the win when it adopted the special texts for GE.


  1. Other


(a) The Secretariat will publish (based on funding availability) a hard copy of this text and the full texts of all the referenced Codex documents. The possibility that subsequent text changes would affect the usability of such a booklet were addressed only generally (maybe it will be a loose-leaf format).

(b) Argentina, Chile, Costa Rica, and Mexico consistently supported the US.


Phil Bereano

49th Parallel Biotechnology Consortium