Within the increasingly global food industry, a huge range of rules governing international trade, food safety and marketing now exist, and these need to be understood in order for food companies to trade abroad successfully. Alan Osborn presents a guide to the organisations and agencies that can provide essential information.

Food is now traded internationally on such a scale that no producer, and certainly no exporter, can afford to ignore global developments in safety, innovation and marketing. A large number of international organisations now exist to serve the food business, ranging from huge billion-pound agencies down to more specialised industrial or regional bodies. Some are involved in making or influencing legislation; others are simply advisory, but all offer valuable, and in some cases indispensable, information. Contact details for organisations can be found below.

Worldwide organisations

Foremost in size and influence is the World Trade Organisation (WTO), which draws on agreements negotiated and agreed at government level by the vast majority of the world’s trading nations and aims to help food and other producers, exporters and importers. While an understanding of WTO agreements, and in particular those covering sanitary and phytosanitary measures, agriculture and market access, is essential to any international food company, the scope for individual companies to influence those measures is limited and has to be exerted via governments.

But the WTO is not merely the agency by which vitally important long-term agreements are hammered out; it also provides an enormous wealth of data on every aspect of food trade, much of it free of charge.

Similar in authority and in remit, though with a sharper focus on third world food production, comes the UN’s Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organisation, whose aim is “to raise levels of nutrition and standards of living, to improve agricultural productivity, and to better the condition of rural populations.” With 183 member countries plus the European Union, the FAO collects and analyses information on all aspects of food production and nutrition, providing farmers, scientists, government planners, traders and non-governmental organisations “with the information they need to make rational decisions on planning, investment, marketing, research and training.”

The UN’s World Food Programme is more concerned with food aid and delivery, being basically concerned with the fight against world hunger, but the scale of its operations and its vast logistical deployments make it a powerful influence in shaping world food markets. The WFP has invested about US$24bn, covering more than 43 million metric tonnes of food, in the past three decades.

International trade in food could not exist without a set of agreed food standards and these are set by the Codex Alimentarius, an intergovernmental UN body with some 23 commodity and subject committees. The Codex lays down strict regulations for the composition of over 200 specific food products as well as setting general standards for labelling pre-packaged foods and issuing guidelines on claims and nutrition labelling. It also defines aspects of hygiene, additives, contaminants and toxins, irradiated foods, and residue limits for pesticides and veterinary drugs and maintains a code of ethics for the international food trade aimed at preventing the dumping of substandard food.

More precisely targeted at developments affecting the better-off countries is the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris, whose studies of trends in world agriculture and the food industry are held in high esteem. The OECD’s Directorate for Food, Agriculture and Fisheries is a major source of expertise while its programme for the Harmonisation of Regulatory Oversight in Biotechology is a major player in the debate over GMOs.

Non-government bodies representing consumer interests in food safety, nutrition, and related matters throughout the world have recently (1997) created the International Association of Consumer Food Organisations “to address the lack of consumer representation in the debate over the global food trade and to work with international agencies responsible for harmonising standards related to the production, distribution, and sale of foods.” IACFO – founded by the US Center for Science in the Public Interest, the Food Commission in the UK and the Japan Offspring Fund – has observer status at the Codex Alimentarius.

Within the EU

Within the European Union, food legislation is proposed by the European Commission and normally has to be approved by the EU Council of Ministers and the European Parliament before entering into law. Lobbying by the food industry takes place at all levels though increasingly through the Parliament given the latter’s expanding scope for “co-decision” veto powers. Lobbying is usually done through Brussels-based organisations like the agriculture bodies Copa-Cogeca, the Bureau of European Consumers Organisations, the Association of the Chocolate, Biscuit and Confectionery Industries of the EU and the EU Confederation of Food and Drink Industries. The latter’s mission is “to express the food and drink industry’s position on a large range of topics of interest to all its members…addressing industry’s competitiveness, food quality and safety, consumer protection and respect for the environment.”

Where food safety issues are concerned, the Brussels-based Standing Committee for the Food Chain and Animal Health, composed of representatives of the 15 EU governments, takes regulatory decisions on food safety. But increasingly in the future matters will be handled by the newly-created European Food Safety Authority. EFSA is a scientific body that will pronounce on safety matters and will be accessible to the food industry, though the European Commission itself will take any action deemed necessary.

Organisations in the United States

Any food company with global aspirations will need to be kept informed of developments in the world’s largest food market, the US, and the best source is the Food and Drug Administration. FDA goals include ensuring that foods are “safe, wholesome, sanitary, and properly labelled.” For industry-supported information on food issues affecting the US, the International Food Information Council Foundation communicates “science-based information on food safety and nutrition to health and nutrition professionals, educators, journalists, government officials and others.” IFIC is supported primarily by the American food, beverage and agricultural industries.

WTO: Email the WTO at enquiries@wto.org, seek publications at publications@wto.org or phone them (in Geneva) at +41 22 739 5000.

FAO: The FAO can be e-mailed at fao-hq@fao.org or phoned at +39 06 5705 1.

WFP: Contact at: tel +39 06 65131, e-mail: wfpinfo@wfp.org

Codex: The Codex is based in Rome: tel +39 06 57051, e-mail codex@fao.org

OECD: All OECD departments are accessible through its main switchboard – +33 1 45 24 82 00 – or at webmaster@oecd.org

IACFO: Deal with IACFO by fax at (Washington) +1-202-265-4954 or email to brucesilverglade@compuserve.com

EU Confederation of Food and Drink Industries: tel +32 2 508 1024.

EFSA: www.efsa.cec.eu.int or tel +32 2 299 1914

FDA: tel 1-888-INFO-FDA (1-888-463-6332).

IFIC: tel 1 202 296 6540, or e-mail: foodinfo@ific.org