Codex covers food hygiene and allergens in first ever virtual meeting

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Work on food hygiene, allergens and support of food trade in Africa have been adopted by the Codex Alimentarius Commission, which recently met online for the first time in its history.

The first part of the virtual meeting on Sept. 24 to 26 saw six areas of new work agreed upon. Further discussions are set to take place on Oct. 12 with adoption of the report on Oct. 19.

Codex Alimentarius is the food standards setting body of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO). The COVID-19 pandemic has made it impossible to hold physical meetings and has severely impacted Codex sessions in 2020.

One new topic was to create guidelines to support development of harmonized food laws in Africa. Current rules are said to be fragmented, overlapping and generally not risk based.

Proposed guidelines will cover general principles of food and feed law, risk analysis, farm-to-fork food safety management, public consultation and information, obligations of food trade, imports and exports guidelines and principles, responsibilities of food and feed businesses and authorities, traceability, recall, packaging and labelling. Final adoption is planned for 2024.

Allergen and hygiene documents approved
The code of practice on food allergen management for businesses was adopted during the meeting. It includes controls to prevent cross-contact where an allergen is transferred from a food with an allergen to another one that does not contain it.

The document supports a proactive approach to managing allergens in food production, rather than a reactive response once a food safety hazard has been identified. It covers the supply chain including primary production, during manufacturing, and at retail and food service.

Officials also agreed on a revised general principles of food hygiene document and its Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) annex. This code of practice forms the basis for all other Codex hygiene texts and standards.

In opening remarks, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, said the COVID-19 pandemic was a challenge but also an opportunity for change and to build back better.

“We are pleased to see that food safety is starting to get more attention at the highest political levels. The UN Secretary-General has announced the convening of the UN Food Systems Summit, to be held later next year. WHO is looking forward to working with partners to ensure that a health lens is used in the preparations for the summit,” he said.

Ghebreyesus also mentioned the recently adopted resolution on “Strengthening efforts on food safety” by the World Health Assembly.

“It calls for greater investment in Codex Alimentarius. The resolution also requests an update to the WHO global strategy for food safety, in coordination with FAO and in consultation with member states and OIE, for possible adoption at the World Health Assembly in 2022. A technical advisory group is being established to advise WHO on the update of the global strategy and a series of consultations is planned in the coming year with all relevant stakeholders,” he said.

Water reuse and regional standards
Efforts will start on guidelines for the safe sourcing, use and reuse of water in food production that comes into direct or indirect contact with food throughout the chain. The safest option might be use of water of potable or drinking water quality. However, this is often not sustainable, feasible, practical or responsible. Operators of food firms will be given practical guidance and tools to help them understand the risks and available interventions.

Other examples of new work are a regional standard for quick frozen dumplings in Asia, for soybean products fermented with Bacillus species, for maamoul and cooked rice wrapped in plant leaves.

Dumplings are made of dough and can be filled with meat, seafood, eggs, nuts or vegetables. The standard will establish specifications, processing procedures, hygiene and labelling requirements for the product to bring consistency across the region, improve safety and quality and ensure a level playing field for trade. It is set for adoption in 2024.

Products in the soybean standard include Natto, Cheonggukjang, Douchi Kinema and Thua nao sa which are produced and traded mainly in Asia. It will cover requirements for quality and safety, including product definition, essential composition and quality factors such as food additives, contaminants, hygiene, labelling as well as methods of analysis and sampling.

Cooked rice wrapped in plant leaves is eaten under a variety of names in China, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. It has rice as the main raw material; with or without adding ingredients such as beans, nuts, meat, poultry and eggs as a filling. The standard aims to protect consumers’ health, ensure product quality and promote fair trade and should be ready in 2024.

Maamoul is a filled pastry or cookie type product, consumed in countries of the Near East region, prepared mainly from wheat flour, semolina, wheat germ, food salt, butter and water and filled with a sweet chewy paste based on dates or other fruits. Scope of the work is to provide guidance on the preparation, packaging and labeling of the product.

Other developments included standards on kiwifruit, fresh garlic, ware potatoes, yams, fermented cooked cassava-based products; for fresh leaves of Gnetum spp, which is commonly consumed as eru, okok, fumbua and okasi and a regional standard on kava products for use as a beverage when mixed with water and mixed zaatar – which is raw and broadleaf thyme and the husk of sumac and sesame seeds, sometimes with other ingredients.

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