International Food Packaging Standards Related to Food Safety, Quality and Trade
Food packaging must serve its function of adequately protecting food contents and identifying the contents of the package in a way that it is readily recognizable. Consequently, the food packaging industry is important to both the consumer and the food industry. The food packaging industry is a highly sophisticated and high technology industry, and it has managed to carry out its role so successfully that there are few consumer concerns about the safety of packaging and packaging ingredients.
From a trade perspective, the technological advances in food packaging over the past 30 or more years have made a significant contribution to facilitate international trade. With the advancements made in food packaging technology, food safety has been enhanced food quality; attributes have been preserved and shelf-lives of foods have been extended. These improvements permit long haul shipment from continent to continent as a matter of routine. The innovations in packaging have also attracted consumer attention and interest, particularly in areas of consumer convenience, resulting in increased marketing.
The principal function of food packaging is to protect food from deterioration and contamination throughout the effective shelf-life of the food. Appropriate food packaging at all levels of the food chain from harvesting, primary storage and processing, through to the final consumer is a critical element in assuring food quality and safety, and in preventing or reducing food losses. Consequently, packaging ingredients must be safe, suitable for their purposes and adhere to requirements limiting migration of packaging material into foods. A second function of food packages is to carry labelling information that will provide the end user or consumer with the information required by law or regulation.
Food packaging, once it is used to package food, is not traded in its own right, but as a part of the food product. It is a part of the food delivery system which serves to protect the food (food quality and safety) and inform the user (labelling). Consequently, failure to meet these purposes can have a significant impact on trade. Before discussing labelling and packaging matters specifically, a few general remarks are necessary on the issues that have an impact upon international trade in food.
The Uruguay Round Agreements
The 1994 conclusion of the Uruguay Round of trade negotiations and the agreements reached are already having, and will continue to have, a very major impact on the way in which trade takes place, including trade in packaged food products. The object of the Uruguay Round, as is generally true of most international trade agreements, is to facilitate trade. These agreements are intended to eliminate or reduce tariffs, lessen the impact of non-tariff trade barriers and abolish tariffication measures, which include such things as quotas, variable levies, minimum import prices, discretionary licensing, voluntary restraint agreements and restrictive border measures.
FAO, through the work of the Codex Alimentarius Commission, the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) and through technical cooperation with both developed and developing countries, play a role in promoting and assuring adequate levels of food quality and safety, in protecting consumers, improving domestic food supplies and in reducing costly rejection of foods shipped in international trade. FAO cooperation and assistance to member countries is targeted to improve and up-date food law/regulations, promote better and effective government and food industry inspection and laboratory services, and provide equipment and instruments and needed training for the purpose of assuring the quality and safety of domestic and exported food products. Our efforts are also directed toward facilitating harmonization, establishing equivalency guidance and improving transparency aspects of national food standard requirements, and import/export inspection and certification systems. These three words, harmonization, equivalency and transparency, appear repeatedly in the World Trade Organization (WTO) Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (known as the SPS Agreement) and the Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade (the TBT Agreement).
The Sanitary and Phytosanitary Agreement
The SPS Agreement fundamentally affirms that importing countries can impose measures necessary to protect the life or health of their people, along with the life and health of their animals and plants, on the basis of sound scientific evidence and judgment, using appropriate risk analysis methods. The SPS Agreement:
- places a heavy emphasis on 'transparency' in the development and application of sanitary and phytosanitary trade measures;
- requires these measures to be applied in a non- discriminatory manner;
- places emphasis on equivalence;
- emphasizes the use of risk analysis to determine measures to provide the appropriate level of protection in the least restrictive manner to international trade;
- strongly encourages 'harmonization' between countries based upon the adoption of standards developed by bodies setting international standards;
- requires countries to participate in the work of organizations setting international standards
- emphasizes the need for assistance to developing and less developed countries; and
- provides for dispute settlement procedures.
The basic objective of the SPS Agreement is to limit the use of measures that may restrict trade to those that are justified to provide the level of protection that is necessary for importing countries. The purpose of the SPS Agreement is to ensure that measures established by governments to protect human, animal and plant life and health are consistent with obligations prohibiting arbitrary or unjustifiable discrimination in trade between countries where the same conditions prevail, or which are a disguised restriction on international trade. The SPS Agreement requires that, with regard to food safety measures, WTO Members base their national measures on sound scientific evidence and judgment, taking into account international standards, guidelines and other recommendations adopted by the Codex Alimentarius Commission, where they exist. It also provides for them to adopt stricter measures than Codex rules if there is a clear rational scientific justification for doing so, or if the level of protection afforded by the Codex standard is inconsistent with the level of protection generally applied and deemed appropriate by the country concerned. In most cases it is likely to be extremely difficult for countries to sustain a case for more stringent measures than provided for in Codex when restrictions relate to food contamination. The SPS Agreement states that any measures taken for foods which conform to international Codex standards, guidelines or other recommendations are deemed to be appropriate, necessary and non-discriminatory.
The SPS Agreement establishes a WTO Committee on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures to provide a regular forum for consultations and to monitor the process of international harmonization and the use of international standards, guidelines and recommendations. The Committee is instructed, in conjunction with the relevant international organizations, to establish a list of international standards, guidelines or recommendations relating to sanitary or phytosanitary measures which the Committee determines to have a major trade impact. The list would include an indication by WTO Members of those international standards, guidelines or recommendations which they apply as conditions for import or on the basis of which imported products conforming to these standards can enjoy access to their markets. The Committee is invited to use the Codex notification procedures for acceptance of standards. The Committee also can invite FAO, the Codex Alimentarius Commission or its subsidiary bodies to examine specific matters with respect to a particular standard, guideline or recommendation, including the basis of explanations for non-use, if requested to do so by a WTO Member.
The Technical Barriers to Trade Agreement
The TBT Agreement is a revision of the agreement of the same name first developed under the Tokyo Round of GATT Negotiations in the 1970s. Examples given in the TBT Agreement as legitimate measures which can be taken are those with the objective related to national security or the prevention of deceptive practices. The objective of the TBT Agreements is to prevent the use of national technical requirements, or standards in general, as unjustified technical barriers to trade. It covers all types of standards including quality requirements for foods except requirements related to Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures, as well as a very large number of measures designed to protect the consumer against deception and economic fraud. The TBT Agreement basically provides that all technical standards and regulations must have a legitimate purpose and that the impact or cost of implementing the standard must be proportional to the purpose of the standard. It also says that if there are two or more ways of achieving the same objective, the least trade-restrictive alternative should be followed. The TBT Agreement, like the SPS Agreement, places emphasis on international standards, WTO Members being obliged to use international standards or parts of them except where the international standard would be ineffective or inappropriate in the national situation. In a similar arrangement to that for dealing with SPS matters, the TBT Agreement establishes a WTO Committee on Technical Barriers to Trade to deal with TBT matters.
The TBT Agreement also emphasizes the issue of transparency and the obligation on countries to notify their trading partners of intended changes in national requirements.
The Codex Alimentarius
A worldwide recognition of the importance of international trade, the need for facilitation of such trade while at the same time ensuring the quality and safety of food for the world consumer, led in 1962 to the establishment of the Joint FAO/WHO Food Standards Programme and of the Codex Alimentarius Commission.
The Codex Alimentarius Commission is supported by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO). Its work is serviced by a Secretariat located in FAO Headquarters in Rome, the Joint FAO/WHO Food Standards Programme. Membership of the Commission is open to the member governments, or Associate Members, of FAO and/or WHO. There are currently 156 countries that are Codex members and these countries account for over 98% of the world's population.
The Codex Alimentarius Commission is responsible for the development of the Codex Alimentarius, which is Latin for 'food code'. The Codex Alimentarius is a collection of internationally adopted food standards, maximum residue limits for pesticides and residues of veterinary drugs, and codes of practice. Codex aims at global protection of consumers' health and economic interests, and the ensuring of fair practices in the trade in food. The Codex Alimentarius includes provisions related to the basic composition, hygiene and nutritional quality of raw, semi-processed and packaged foods, provisions for food additives, residues of pesticide and veterinary drugs, of industrial chemicals or naturally occurring contaminants, labelling and presentation, and methods of analysis and sampling. Over the years, the Codex Alimentarius Commission has established:
- Maximum Residue Limits for 185 Agricultural and Veterinary Chemicals;
- 41 Codes of Hygienic and Good Manufacturing Practice;
- 237 Codex Standards
It has evaluated 760 chemicals proposed for food additive use and established guideline levels for 25 environmental and industrial contaminants in foods, including radionuclides.
The principal role of the Codex Alimentarius Commission is to develop harmonized international food standards and codes of practice for use in international trade in food. All Codex member countries are invited to participate in the Codex Alimentarius Commission and its subsidiary committees to ensure that standards assure acceptable levels of quality and safety of all foods in international trade, and that Codex work is based on sound scientific evidence and approprate risk analysis procedures. After thorough review by the Codex Alimentarius Commission in a multi-step process, finally adopted Codex standards and codes of practice are recommended to governments for adoption and use in international trade in food and national regulations. Coverage extends to all the principal foods, whether processed, semiprocessed or raw, in the form that they reach the consumer. These range from meat, fruit and vegetables and fish, all the way to such entities as edible ices, juices and bottled water. Codex standards are developed by consensus and on the best scientific and technical advice available. Codex is the only international forum able to bring together scientists, technical experts, government regulators, consumers and industry representatives. Although Codex is an inter-governmental organization and the heads of country delegations are therefore government representatives, Codex encourages the involvement of industry and consumers. Many delegations to the various meetings of Codex include representatives from the various food industry interests as well as from consumer organizations. The guiding principles of the Codex Alimentarius are based upon consumer protection and the facilitation of trade through harmonization; it has never intended to restrict trade in any way or to interpose unnecessary or artificial barriers. The international food standards and codes of practice of the Codex Alimentarius are developed so that governments can accept that products complying with those standards can move in international trade without jeopardizing the health or interests of consumers. In addition, industry can trade in foods that comply with Codex standards confident in the knowledge that they are dealing in products that are internationally accepted as safe and of acceptable quality. It is this reliance on sound scientific evaluation, the involvement of all sectors concerned and its international representation that give Codex Standards their international recognition. This is also why Codex standards have been recognized by the WTO as the bench mark for international trade in foods.
Food Packaging Regulation and Trade
Food packaging materials are diverse in nature. Whereas the 'traditionalist' looks on food packaging as comprising a cardboard carton or a paper wrapping, it is infinitely more than this in these times. Food packaging includes glass and metal containers, and a vast array of flexible pouches, synthetic and natural fibre bags and containers, coating, sealant and adhesive materials, and all the ingredients necessary for the formulation of these packages, just to name a few. Problems that have been experienced in the past with each of these have included:
- Lead contamination from soldered can seams in canned evaporated milk and other canned products;
- plastic monomers, such as vinyl chloride, as well as phthalate plasticizer leaching from plastic container into liquid food and alcoholic beverages;
- aflaking of adhesive materials, used to seal paper cartons, into the food product; and
- deterioration of interior can coatings.
At present, however, packaging technologies are extremely well understood and the packaging processes highly refined. Such problems, therefore, should no longer occur.
The greatest advance that has occurred in the packaging of food is no doubt process control, and more specifically the application of the 'Good Manufacturing Practice' (GMPs). Utilizing processing measures which incorporate hazard analysis and prevention and control procedures serves to ensure that the food and its packaging are considered together, including any hazard particular to the combination of food and packaging. This ensures, for example, that the hazards associated with any particular new combination of food and packaging are scrutinized in advance, and measures taken to control the hazard so as to ensure consumer protection.
An examination of current national food legislation for packaging and packaging materials shows considerable variation from food-related practices of strict and detailed regulation. Detailed food packaging regulations still exist in some countries, most notably the USA, but regulators in most countries have had difficulties in keeping up with industry innovation and developments in packaging technology. The present approach in food packaging legislation in many countries is to set down the objectives that packaging should achieve. These are as simple as requiring that packaging be appropriate to the food being packaged, strong enough to withstand normal handling practices during shipment and handling by retailers and the consumer, and do not contaminate the food either biologically or chemically to an extent that would put the consumer's health at risk. It is interesting to note the extent to which the principle of 'equivalence' has been adopted in this important area.
When considering the impact of food packaging on trade over the past 30 or more years, advancements in food packaging and packing food for shipment have made a significant contribution to the success of international trade in food. Successful trade in food is dependent on food products which meet established food quality and safety standards, are nutritious and processed under Good Manufacturing Practices, and are appropriately labelled. Advances in packaging on food have certainly enhanced the safety of food through the development of more effective barrier systems between the food and the external contaminant and decomposition sources. Innovative food container and packaging sealing systems provide the necessary mechanism to maintain the integrity of food processing methods and controls against biological growth leading to spoilage or pathogenic organism development, and to limit chemical contamination. The quality attributes of food have been preserved through utilization of new packaging techniques including modified atmosphere packaging. Carefully designed and modern packing materials have given rise to the improved packing methods for fresh fruits and vegetables to protect them from damage and spoilage during shipment. Shrink wrap palletised and containerized shipment methods have reduced damage and spoilage from abusive handling during shipment. Distance and time have always been physical barriers to food trade, preventing the shipment of certain susceptible products simply because their shelf-life was too short to withstand the time required to reach distant locations. Utilizing modern food packaging and improved shipping containers, coupled with improved food processing and preservation methods, product shelf-life has been extended to overcome this barrier. Consequently, foods which were not previously available in some locations of the world are now readily available, contributing to the varieties of food needed for sound nutrition.
Inspection and Certification Harmonization
Although many aspects of activities of subsidiary bodies of the Codex Alimentarius Commission are directly related to provisions of the WTO Agreements concerning equivalency, harmonization and transparency, the work of the Codex Committee on Food Import and Export Inspection and Certification. Systems is especially relevant in this regard. The Committee, which is hosted by the government of Australia, held its fourth session in Sydney from 19 -23 February 1996. The Committee is responsible for the development of principles and guidelines for food import and export inspection and certification systems with a view to harmonizing methods and procedures. The Committee is also responsible for the development of guidelines and criteria with respect to official certificates, for information exchange in relation to food import/export control and for collaboration with other international groups working on related matters.
The Codex Committee on Import and Export Inspection and Certification Systems has confirmed that a risk-based approach should be used in the development of national food import inspection systems. This results in targeting problem areas more effectively and providing greater consumer protection than systems based purely on random inspection procedures.
The General Principles for Food Import and Export Inspection and Certification as well as Guidelines for the Exchange of Information in Food Control Emergency Situations are based on these concepts. The General Principles include provisions concerning the harmonization, equivalence and transparency of differing inspection and certification systems on basis of concepts stressed in the WTO Agreements. The General Principles also provide guidance on principles of risk assessment, non-discrimination, certification validity and special and differential treatment for developing countries.
To help member countries in translating these principles into action, the Committee is now developing. Guidelines for the Design, Operation, Assessment, and Accreditation of Food Imports and Exports Inspection and Certification Systems. With these guidelines, Codex is intending to set guidelines for verifying equivalency amongst existing systems and for establishing and improving new systems. Equivalent systems are systems which provide an equal degree of protection for consumers world-wide. Systems which may be structured differently, or operated in different ways, but which will provide equal assurances of food safety would be considered 'equivalent'. This is a first step in the concept of 'harmonization of national requirements for food' contained in the SPS agreement, the guidelines also contain a specific section on Transparency. How reliable is one inspection and certification system when compared with other inspection and certification systems? Does a system really work as it claims it does? These are questions which are of great interest to consumers, import inspection services and trading partners in the current trend of globalized food trade. Transparency is also crucial for governments of exporting countries to demonstrate their commitment to consumers' safety; hence allowing their products to compete more fairly in the world market.
The Committee is working on the aspect of accreditation, with the basic premise that national food control authorities should be able to delegate some of their prerogatives. The main idea is that utilizing inspection and certification resources outside national food control authorities can help in achieving more comprehensive control systems. Regional and local administrations, or even private operators could be authorized to carry out inspection and certification work for national food control authorities. What Codex seeks to achieve is that the inspection and certification work which is carried out by 'accredited bodies' is done in accordance with Codex standards: standards that assure the necessary level of protection for consumers.
The Committee is considering measures which would be necessary to improve the certification process, including the aspects of inspection and laboratory techniques. The concept of 'equivalence' is pivotal to the implementation of the SPS and TBT Agreements and is replacing the notion of complete harmonization. Equivalence requires that the results achieved must be identical and verifiable, particularly as related to levels of consumer protection, while flexible to allow for different approaches to be used to achieve the same results.
Governments need to review their SPS and TBT measures to ensure that they are in conformity with the provisions of the SPS and TBT Agreements. Questions that they must ask themselves include the following: Do they collect, document and publish all their SPS measures? Do they adopt international standards, codes of practice and recommendations to the greatest degree possible? Do their SPS measures only vary from international standards, codes of practice and recommendations on the basis of sound science and proper risk assessment? In developing new SPS measures that vary from international standards, codes of practice and recommendations, do they comply with the transparency requirements? Do they give early notification of intent to develop a measure? Do they provide details of the measure they propose to introduce? Do they have mechanisms for receiving and considering comments? Do they provide adequate lead time when introducing new measures to allow suppliers to adjust. Do they have a single central contact point for two-way communication with other countries and have they notified it to the Committee on SPS Measures? Do they ensure that no one else within their national territory (such as non-government bodies or regional bodies) is negating their obligations? Are they in a position to make, and are they able to justify, any claim that any area is free from pests and diseases when seeking access for their products to other countries' markets?
Within the limits of their resources, countries should participate in international harmonization work such as the work of the Codex Alimentarius Commission. This goes beyond the regulatory work and the involvement in the activities of technical Committees. The food industry should receive appropriate advice on how to implement Codex technical specifications and produce food which complies with Codex Standards.
Losses due to rejection of foods at point of import can have a drastic impact on national economies. The US Food and Drug Administration regularly publishes import detention data on foods which have been rejected for various reasons. Inappropriate food packaging does not seem to cause many problems, but inadequate food labelling is a major cause of rejection of food shipments. Usually if a shipment of a certain commodity is detained, the surveillance on other shipments of the same commodity coming from the country concerned is immediately increased. Food exporters in that country may therefore all suffer from one incident. This can only be avoided if all food exporters concerned collectively comply with international standards such as the ones developed by Codex. This collective compliance has to be built-up through the establishment of better control systems, in which manufacturers and national food control authorities work in close cooperation.
FAO has been committed to assist developing countries to strengthen their food control systems, and therefore to build up the capacity of national food control authorities, food producers and processors to assure the quality and safety of domestic and exported food supplies. This technical assistance provided by FAO is another fundamental contribution of the Organization to its member countries to facilitate international trade in food. The group within FAO most directly involved in this activity is the Food Quality Control and Consumer Protection Group of the Food Quality and Standards Service. This group advocates the establishment of integrated food control programmes comprising a sound regulatory framework, an effective administration system, consumer involvement and active participation of the food industry. FAO has given careful consideration to these matters over a number of years beginning in the early 1970s and has developed an overall policy framework for strengthening national food control systems. Technical assistance in food control, in the form of project implementation, consultation, training and/or other advisory services is being provided or launched in more than 60 countries around the world.
Other FAO Work on Food Quality and Safety
The regular programme of FAO provides the technical and scientific basis for all food quality and safety matters. This includes providing the secretariat for the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA), and participation in both the Joint Meeting of the FAO Panel of Experts and the WHO Expert Group on Pesticide Residues (JMPR) and in the Joint Expert Committee on Food Irradiation (JECFI). In addition FAO develops and publishes guidelines and manuals (including the FAO Food and Nutrition Paper series, Manuals of Food Quality Control), arranges special ad hoc expert consultations and conferences for example, three expert consultations were held recently (on The Application of Risk Analysis to Food Standards Issues).
Expert FAO/WHO committees and consultations provide the independent scientific advice that forms the basis for the development of food safety recommendations used in international trade. These consultations are forums in which independent, invited experts assess the state of scientific knowledge of food additives, pesticide and veterinary drug residues in food, mycotoxin and other chemical contaminants in food, and food irradiation treatments and make recommendations to member governments and the Codex committees on such matters.
FAO also develops Manuals of Food Quality Control which provide recommendations for the development and operation of food quality and safety systems. Key titles in the series include Food Inspection, Food for Export, Management of Food Control Programmes and Imported Food Inspection. FAO disseminates these publications to all member countries and uses them in its project assistance work in developing countries.
The food packaging industry is likely to be a major beneficiary of recent developments arising out of the Uruguay Round decisions. As the international trade in food increases, as is certainly the case at present, so does the accompanying trade in pre-packaged food and packaging materials. The elimination of trade barriers can be expected to move the trade in food increasingly toward more consumer oriented and ready to prepare or consume types of products. The food packaging industry has made significant contributions to enhance food trade by developing innovative packaging technology which has improved food protection and preserves the integrity of manufacturing and processing methods and controls to assure food quality and safety. Protective barrier systems for shipping and handling such as containerizing and shrink wrap palletizing aid in minimizing damage resulting from abusive handling while, at the same time, adding efficiency to the shipping process. The relationship and cooperation that has been established between FAO, whether as Codex or in its own right, and the World Trade Organization, member governments and food control authorities will increase the trend towards 'equivalence' of food standards and practices, with major advances in the flexibility available to those trading in packaged food products. The harmonization that has already occurred and which will continue, will be achieved in a way that ensures appropriate solutions to particular problems and a strong emphasis on flexibility in how compliance with food standards is achieved. While benefiting from the opportunities arising out of the new world trading environment, it is important for the food packaging industry to remain vigilant in the discharge of its obligation to the consumer in relation to the maintenance of food quality and safety. It is only by doing this as a first priority that it will continue to enjoy its low profile business success.