Sixty years of standard setting – where Codex came from and where it’s going

To mark its 60th year, Sarah Cahill, Steve Wearne and Tom Heilandt reflect on the history of the Codex Alimentarius Commission from its inception to its scope and continuing evolution in serving the interests of consumers and the food and beverage industry alike.


The Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC) met for the first time in 1963, when thirty countries and sixteen international organisations built the backbone of the multi-committee structure that would produce the Codex Alimentarius, or “Food Code”. In the post-war period, as agriculture production increased and more cross-border food trade followed, the need for norms to facilitate such trade emerged. Entities such as the International Dairy Federation (IDF), in existence since 1903, were already providing some standards in the dairy sector, and other standard-setting organisations such as the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) were being established. However, gaps existed when it came to food.
In the early 1950s, the World Health Organization (WHO) expressed the view that the increasing use of various chemical substances in the food industry presented a new public-health problem. At the same time the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) was recognising the rapidly growing importance of internationally accepted food standards as a means of protecting consumers and producers in all countries, of effectively reducing trade barriers and avoiding duplication and conflicting standards. This led to the FAO agreeing in 1961 to establish the CAC, subsequently endorsed by WHO in 1962.

Among the initial priorities of the CAC were food additives, food labelling, methods of sampling and analysis and basic food hygiene rules. In addition, it was agreed to draw up standards for the principal foodstuffs in international trade with initial attention focusing on fats and oils, fruit preserves, fruits juices, cocoa beans, cocoa and chocolate, and honey and sugar. One may imagine that the priorities of 60 years ago would be different from today, but while work on individual food products has significantly reduced, those initial four priority areas – food additives, food labelling, food hygiene and methods of analysis and sampling – remain among the most active areas of Codex work today and key developments in a few of these areas are outlined below.