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Agriculture and The World Trade Organisation

Gurdarshan Singh Bhalla
Jean-Luc Racine
Frédéric Landy

III. Food security and food safety

10. Food Safety and WTO: a Scientific Perspective?

Jean-Pierre Doussin

Texte intégral

Preliminary remarks

1For a better understanding of the issues debated in this paper, two rounds of observations might be useful. The first one deals with the definition of “food safety”, which must not be confused with the broader concept of health. The second one would like to clarify what is the international approach of the food safety issue, as observed through two key institutions in this field: the World Trade Organization and the Codex Alimentarius Commission.

The concept of food safety

2As close to each other they could be, the two concepts of food safety and health through food must not be confused.

3According to the WHO, health could be defined as what sustains the physical and mental well being of people. Once this concept is applied to food, two ways to address the health issue are to be distinguished:

  • the “negative” approach: food must not compromise the health of consumers by any chemical, biological or microbiological element or substance it might contain.
  • the “positive” approach: food is perceived as per its nutritional qualities, and as far as it helps to be in form, sustains physical performance, slows down ageing, prevents sickness, and, more generally, obstructs the accidents of life.

4The first approach alone refers to food safety, and defines the field of the standard studies of risks related to food additives, pesticides residues, veterinary medicines, microbial germs and their toxins, and other contaminants.

The international approach of food safety: WTO and the Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC)

5The world over, the protection of the consumers’safety is an integral part of the major duties of public authorities, which elaborate in this regard regulations and official controls. This is not such an easy task, and the FAO and the WHO had decided to set up, in 1962, a body able to guide the national governments in this field: the Codex Alimentarius Commission.

6In the nineties, the international community interfered a second time, when the World Trade Organization was set up, and when the issue of the Sanitary and Phyto-Sanitary measures (SPS Agreement) was discussed. The order of the day was no more to promote food safety as such, but to avoid that government regulations and controls impede the liberalization of international trade. In other words, the first policy, while recognizing the benefits generated by a facilitated international trade, was basically concerned with the protection of consumers. The second approach, on the other hand, was essentially focussed on trade: the rights of the States to work for the protection of consumers and to place the level of such a protection at the level they wish were recognized, as far as these concerns were not going astray, and used as a tool for hindering trade.

7Beyond these different approaches, a consensus emerged: any safety regulation enacted by any government was supposed to be scientifically based, on acknowledged procedures of risk analysis.

8To agree on principles does not however elicit an agreement on implementation. In the diverse realm of government policies on food safety, consensus and disagreements coexist in various ways. We shall address this issue in the next two sections devoted to the key concept of risk analysis, presenting, by the way, the French positions in this regard.

Food safety and risk analysis: principles

9The idea was not new, but has been really acknowledged only recently: as far as food safety is concerned, public authorities and private companies act rationally only if they define risk management as their goal, in order to totally do away with the risk, or in order to reduce it to an acceptable level – a more realistic hypothesis. Any policy, any implementation, which fails to pay attention to this basic truth will most probably be inefficient – which would be a serious failure – or useless – which is not acceptable in economic terms. Resources are by definition limited. The art of governance requires them to be used at their best: where needed, and only there. Risk management presupposes that the risk is assessed, and its parameters identified. One has to know where the danger lies (microbial germ, chemical element, biological substance…), which doses might be insecure, and what would be the effects on the consumers if the line is crossed; which implies that one knows the level of contamination, the ingested quantities related to food habits of the consumers, etc…. This alone determines accurately what is the effective risk for a given population.

10“Risk assessment” and “risk management” have hence become the key words defining the present approach of consumer safety in general, and food safety in particular. Risk assessment is to be conducted by scientists, who must be granted full autonomy at work, while risk management is to be left in the hands of political decision-makers.

11The SPS agreement set up in the WTO frame and mentioned here above defines the scientific rationale of regulations as an absolute compulsion, which therefore calls for a risk analysis methodology.

12On its side, the Codex Alimentarius Commission has strongly relied upon risk analysis for preparing the texts distributed to governments. The two “god-mothers” of this overall policy, the FAO and the WHO, have organized several rounds of consultation of experts from all over the world, in order to define with them clear procedures helping both CAC and governments to carry on their responsibility on practical issues, in what may be defined, on many accounts, as a new area. Furthermore, the CAC has been recognized, under the SPS agreement, as the reference body judging the acceptability–or the non-acceptability–of government decisions in relation to international trade.

13The role of the two scientific bodies working in this area: the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives and Contaminants (JECFA) and the Joint Expert Meeting on Pesticides Residues (JMPR) is being reassessed, in order to offer a better balance and to improve the complementarity of the expert committees in charge of risk assessment and the CAC office in charge of risk management. In the meantime other bodies are under consideration, or to be set up: the proposal to create an expert committee on hygiene, similar to the JECFA, has been approved.

14France has followed these issues very closely, and has established two key institutions in this regard: the Food Consumption Observatory (Observatoire des Consommations Alimentaires: OCA) and the Food Sanitary Safety French Agency (Agence Française de Sécurité Sanitaire des Aliments: AFSSA).

15The Food Consumption Observatory has been set up about ten years ago by three Ministries of the French Government having a say in food quality, in order to be able to conduct an evaluation of the exposition of consumers to risks, a key parameter of the risk analysis. It is not enough to identify and to characterize a danger: one has to know also if the consumption of the food vector of this danger is really exposing the French consumer to risk. The FCO collects all national data on two grounds:

  1. evaluation of the extent of danger in different food categories, i.e. the level of contamination by any type of residue and contaminant, or the presence of any additive in a given food category (for instance, the cadmium content of cereals)
  2. level of consumption of these food categories by 97,5% of the consumers.

16As a result, it has been possible to evaluate, for instance, the maximal consumption of aflatoxines by French consumers (4 μg per capita per day) and to show that, except for sulphites, the consumption of additives was not a problem. It has also been demonstrated that, out of 167 pesticides tested, 8 of them called for an additional study of the possible impact of consuming more than the acceptable daily intake.

17Created by an Act of July 1998, the Food Sanitary Safety Agency has started effective work in 1999. It is the umbrella agency regrouping all the scientific bodies in charge of risk assessment, including the FCO. It is expected to improve the efficiency of the French system of risk assessment by pooling resources presently disseminated in various agencies which sometimes have overlapping goals. The new set-up gives due attention to the necessary independence of scientific experts. In other words, these experts have to enjoy greater resources without losing their autonomy.

18All these developments underline how all governments, unanimously, wish to give themselves the means and the tools to protect efficiently the health of consumers. However, agreements on principles do not prevent strong divergences on modes of action to surface.

Food safety and risk analysis: practical issues

19At the level of risk assessment, divergences are manifest in the behaviour of various states. These differences are much greater as far as risk management is concerned.

20a) During the assessment procedures, divergences are mostly noted in the field of risk assessment policies. The following questions do not receive the same answers everywhere:

  • Are the expert bodies endowed with required resources?
  • Are these experts used at their best? (see for instance the French answer: the Food Sanitary Safety Agency).
  • What is the field of action open to scientists?
  • Which risk level is defined for their expertise?
  • What is the target population: risky groups, or the whole population? (the French Government asked the FCO to cover 97,5% of the whole population: a high level of protection, which is furthermore complemented by occasional studies conducted on specific target groups, such as children, diabetics, etc..).
  • Which risks are defined as top priority? For instance, which risk up the priority scale must be given the utmost attention, and the highest resource allocation: salmonella in food; genetically modified organisms; the impact of bovine spongiform encephalopathy?
  • What must be considered as most important: objective criteria related to the seriousness, the probability and the frequency of the risk, or the consumer public opinion about the said risk?

21In such a field, the perceptions of social groups are not irrelevant to business companies and to the governments, and may vary a lot. In France as well as in Europe, for instance, the wishes of the consumers impel governments to strongly restrict the use of hormones as growth promoters or favouring milk production. For answering a public demand distrusting the use of such substances, expert analyses on hormones will therefore be conducted very often.

22b) As far as risk management is concerned, differences turn out to be ditches, if not precipices.

23In the field of risk management techniques, radical oppositions are noted. In international negotiations, a classic polarity opposes those who believe, as Indians and French do, that food safety, whatever the difficulties faced, must be maintained all along the transformation line, for food deserves a permanent respect; to those who plead for a final aseptisation, by a physical or a chemical process. More than divergent scientific approaches, these positions reflect a struggle between two philosophies, between two cultures, one of them focussed on food as an object, the other one seeing in food a subject.

24Radical oppositions appear as well when the relevance of “science” is discussed, partly linked to what has been mentioned above.

25For some experts, science (understand the key sciences as biology, chemistry or sciences derived from them) is the only factor to be taken into account. Science determinism is clear: when science (through the techniques of risk assessment already mentioned) detects no noticeable or unacceptable risk, there is no room left for justifying any restriction.

26For other experts, in France and in most European countries, science must obviously be taken into account as often as possible, for the scientific knowledge of risk is a preliminary to action. But this being said, other parameters must also be considered, such as the preferences or the concerns of the consumers. There is absolutely no scientific justification for opposing food irradiation in the name of food safety. Moreover, this technique is an extremely efficient way to guarantee the safety of food (for instance against the microbial contamination of some animal items by salmonella). This process is no doubt much safer than chemical treatments (such as those used for the debacterisation of spices for instance). However, some groups of people may oppose food irradiation with such virulence than the political authority may be unable to authorize it, as Germany testifies till date. At the global level, the Codex Alimentarius itself has been driven to discriminate in a way against this technique: on food labels mention of irradiation has been made compulsory, while other equivalent chemical processes (such as fumigation) are not to be indicated.

27In countries not believing in scientific determinism, the principle of utility governs the decision to authorize or not the treatment of plants, animals and food, or the use of any additive. Why take a risk, potential or even unknown as it may be, if there is a way to do without it? In French law, the first criterion considered for authorizing the use of an additive stands is its recognized utility. The same principle is adhered to by the Codex Alimentarius, but its application is constantly questioned, as the research work conducted by the Commission sustains regular reassessments. However, it is not easy to define with full objectivity the criterion of utility. How to evaluate utility when colouring substances are added to milk for preparing some cheeses, and discolouring ones are needed for elaborating other types of cheeses, in India for instance, a process that some states, such as Malta, do oppose? Whatever experts may think about it, the utility criterion is more and more advanced by consumers (and in France by producers as well, who have adjusted, more than producers from other countries, their process of fabrication to the long established and imperious consumer’s will).

28Such a case would legitimate, I believe, the application of what is called the principle of precaution. As a matter of fact, if this principle is undoubtedly bounding in front of a danger science is not yet able to understand totally, but known to be serious (the consequences of the bovine spongiform encephalopathy for instance), it could as well be followed in less serious cases, or in front of mere potential risks, when the origin of the danger could be suppressed easily. The best example here is undoubtedly the use of bovine somatotropine (a “milky” hormone pushing highly productive milk cows to increase by 10 to 15% their milk production). JECFA has determined that this hormone is harmless to human beings. A few dissident voices have however argued that risks, as low as they could be, are never non-existent: indirect risks may occur, as the cattle so treated received more antibiotics, or their milk may possibly contain more retroviruses. As only highly productive milk cows may be usefully treated that way, one cannot consider using this hormone outside developed countries and intensive agriculture. The consequences of this hormone treatment are clear in various fields:

  • it pushes up milk production in countries which are already producing more milk than needed
  • it increases the imbalance of agricultural land use, for it benefits intensive agriculture in areas which are already forward
  • it requests special protein-enriched cattle food for cows having to adjust to their hormone-backed increased milk production, a process costly in terms of energy and non-renewable resources, and detrimental to the use of grass-land natural resources
  • it does not bring a clear benefit to consumers, because it is not sure that the price of milk is going down despite an increased production.

29Therefore, it seems legitimate for a state, or a group of states (the European Union for instance), adhering to the utility criterion and to the principle of precaution to ban the use of bovine somatotropine on its territory, and to forbid the import of produces originating from treated cattle. The WTO, however, has condemned the European Union for supporting the ban of growth hormones in animal husbandry without offering a credible risk analysis.

30This debate is now running on the forefront of the international stage, more acute than it ever was. What is at stake is well known: free circulation of food, and the conquest of international markets.


31I would like to conclude by giving emphasis to a point dear to Frenchmen: the quality approach and the safety approach are fully interlocked.

32The way food safety is operated is not without consequences upon other parameters, and particularly upon the taste of food (see the effect of chlorinated water on chicken meat). Consequently, the WTO position arguing that all equivalent means are acceptable (as advanced in the SPS Agreement) seems to be rather debatable. This issue is indeed one of the noticeable points obstructing the search for mutual recognition between the USA and the European Union in the field of food safety and food trade.

33It must be noted in this regard that the willingness of some countries (such as France and, I believe, India) to “respect” food, to urge for taste quality, and to select consequently safety control relying upon the implementation of risk prevention procedures all along the line of production pay very high dividends sometimes in the field of risk management as well. An example has to be constantly recalled here: the extraordinary quality control of spring and mineral water in France (soil analysis in the spring surroundings, bottling at the stream emergence itself and permanent analysis of chemical and microbiological particulars of the water at the spring) made any sanitizing treatment useless. The public authorities may therefore recommend this spring and mineral water to babies and young children, and to immune deficient people. On the contrary, in countries not mastering spring and mineral water control and production, treatments defined as necessary, such as ozonisation or chlorination, are unable to eradicate very toxic germs, Cryptosporidium for instance. Such countries must therefore prepare special products for target populations particularly exposed to risk, who are recommended “sterile” water.

34Countries which believe in the “subject” food are accustomed to use “the good living” against the bad one, i.e. to use positive microbial germs against the presence or the expansion of negative germs. Clearly, studies focussed on the concept of “barrier flora” have a future…

35One has therefore to question the concept, dear to the WTO and to the SPS Agreement, of equivalence of means, and equivalence of results. Debates upon such a topic are indeed not supposed to come to a close very soon!

© Éditions de la Maison des sciences de l’homme, 2002

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