Trade agreement raises fears over food safety: Increased levels of pesticides would be permitted by GATT regulatory organisation

Click to follow
Chemicals known to cause cancer and birth defects will be allowed in higher concentrations in imported foods if the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), now under negotiation, is signed.

In the interests of promoting international trade, GATT proposes that control of additives and contaminants in food will move from the European Community and national governments to an international body called the Codex Alimentarius, a United Nations organisation. The Codex has been in existence for many years but, until now, has made only recommendations. If GATT is signed, these recommendations will, in effect, take precedence over European law for imported food.

The countries expecting to sign the GATT agreement - which aims to reduce the barriers to world trade - are now waiting to hear the reaction of the Clinton administration to the proposals. Originally it was hoped that the agreement would be signed in the early days of the new United States presidency. Participating countries still hope that it will be signed by the end of the year, but the treaty is already running into difficulties as pressure groups lobby for health, environmental and social clauses to be added.

Consumer organisations are concerned that the Codex standard is generally less rigorous than European food law and that food contaminated with undesirable substances will be imported freely in future. The Codex already permits five pesticides in food classed as probable cancer-causing agents by the US Environmental Protection Agency. This week, Codex delegates meet in Havana to discuss what levels of eight other carcinogens should be permitted in food.

Melanie Miller, an executive of the Safe Alliance, a coalition of 30 organisations interested in health, food and the environment, said: 'If the Codex intended to fully protect consumers they would adopt the precautionary principle and not allow these pesticide residues to be used by setting a maximum limit which, in effect, banned them. But in the majority of cases, the maximum levels of pesticide permitted by the Codex are set so that pesticide residues are tolerated in food.'

One pesticide, cyhexatin, which is suspected of causing birth defects and is banned in Britain, is allowed by the Codex in significant quantities in 10 foods including pears, tomatoes and tea. Next week, Codex will consider increasing the quantity of cyhexatin allowed in apples.

There are many other examples of discrepancies between standards decided by the Codex and by European or North American regulatory bodies. For example, the Codex has set acceptable levels for 14 food dyes prohibited in Norway, for five prohibited in Sweden, nine in the US, and for two not permitted in Britain.

The Codex allows benzoate preservative to be added to margarine, a practice not allowed in Britain, France, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway or Portugal. A small proportion of people cannot tolerate benzoate and suffer from asthma and dermatitis when they consume it.

The use of hormones to promote growth of beef cattle is currently forbidden in the EC, but Ms Miller fears that the Codex is likely to approve such use of hormones. The US is very much in favour and sees the European ban on hormone beef as an unjustifiable constraint of trade.

'It is going to be impossible to justify the EC hormone ban under the rules of the proposed GATT agreement,' Ms Miller said. 'The Codex has not yet set standards for growth- promoting hormones, although it debated the subject in 1991. The EC countries disagreed with use of hormones and a majority of the Codex voted against them. However, the US will probably now try to develop new criteria which will narrow the Codex's assessment of risk and make it harder for other countries to object to hormones on the grounds of unacceptable practice.'

The National Food Alliance, a pressure group that has prepared a report on Codex (Cracking the Codex), analysed the membership of Codex committees and found that more corporations (140) were represented over the last two years than countries (105). Nestle, the food manufacturer, sent 38 representatives to meetings over the last two years - more than the majority of countries that attended. Out of 2,578 participants in these Codex meetings only 26 came from consumer organisations and no environmental group was represented.