Codex adopts stricter food safety standards

The international food standards body has adopted stringent laws on pesticides in food and arsenic residue in rice 

By Sonam Taneja
Published: Friday 01 July 2016

Pesticides have become a part and parcel of agriculture. Their rampant use leads to high residues in food, which is potentially dangerous to human health
Credit: Superfit Asia/Flickr

The United Nations food standards body, Codex Alimentarius Commission (Commission), met in Rome recently to take decisions on matters relating to food safety. It adopted guidelines to prevent salmonella in fresh beef and pork, to control parasites in food and update guidelines on nutrition labelling and residues of inorganic arsenic in husked rice.

It also adopted Maximum residue limits (MRLs) for 30 pesticides and adopted almost 400 food additives in specific foods, including antioxidants and preservatives. It initiated an overhaul of the existing guidelines on general principles of food hygiene and review of the existing guidelines on antimicrobial resistance.

Pesticide residues in food

Pesticides have become a part and parcel of agriculture. Their rampant use leads to high residues in food, which is potentially dangerous to human health.

The commission discussed the report of the 48th Session of the Codex Committee on Pesticide Residues held in China earlier this year.

However, based on risk assessments provided by a group of independent international experts (the Joint FAO/WHO expert meeting on pesticide residues), the commission has adopted MRLs for more than 30 different pesticides in various foods, along with revoking MRLs for a set of about 25 pesticides.

Effectively, the commission reduced MRLs substantially for pesticides like lindane and added MRLs for new food categories for pesticides like phorate, triazophos and propiconazole and imidacloprid.

Phorate and triazophos are considered “extremely hazardious” (class IA) and “highly hazardous” (class IB) respectively by the WHO.

Further, the commission has increased MRLs for many pesticides like cyantraniliprole, acetamiprid, fluopyram, imidacloprid, abamectin and propriconazole.

Out of 30 pesticides for which Codex adopted MRLs in the meeting, pesticides like flutriafol and fluxapyroxad are not registered in India.

However, despite the fact that pesticides such as fluopyram, cyantraniliprole, cyazofamid and floricamid are registered in India, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI ) does not provide MRLs.

For some pesticides such as Imidacloprid, Acetamiprid and Lufenuron, the current standards provide MRLs only for one or two food categories whereas Codex standards are much more detailed. India needs to set MRLs for more food categories for such pesticides.

The New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment has been working on the issue of pesticide regulation in India for over a decade and thinks that the pesticide management scenario needs to improve both in terms of law and practice.

It has been seen that some pesticides which are considered toxic around the world and are banned in many countries, are still used in India such as Benomyl, methyl parathion and phosphamidon, Amit Khurana, programme manager at CSE said.

He added that there were several pesticides which are allowed in India for which the FSSAI had not set MRLs. He said as farmers’ extension services in India were weak they were influenced by representatives of pesticide manufacturing companies while making choices.

Arsenic residues in rice

The commission highlighted the issue of arsenic residues in rice. Rice is a staple food in many communities and has a tendency to take up more arsenic than other food.

Arsenic has been associated with developmental effects, heart disease, diabetes, and damage to the nervous system and brain. The commission recommended that no more than 0.35 mg/kg (ppm) of inorganic arsenic should be allowed in husked rice (paddy rice from which the only husk has been removed, also known as brown rice or cargo rice).

The FSSAI does not provide a specific residue limit for arsenic in rice, and therefore, it falls within the residuary category making the limit as high as 1.1 ppm.

It is pertinent to note that even though arsenic contamination in rice has been a big issue in India, we do not have specific standards for arsenic in rice and the effective standards are much behind what the Codex has now adopted.

Guidelines on nutrition labelling updated

A balanced diet forms the foundation of a person’s health and it should be rich in vitamins and minerals. The commission has adopted nutrient reference values for copper, iron, magnesium, phosphorus and vitamin A to be included in its guidelines on nutrition labelling.

The FSSAI does not mandate even the declaration of salt on the label and India should strive to adopt global best practices with regard to nutrition labelling.

Antimicrobial resistance

The commission recognised that antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is a serious threat to human health and agreed to review the existing guidelines, including the code of practice to minimise and contain antimicrobial resistance adopted in 2005.

It was decided that a dedicated codex taskforce on AMR chaired by South Korea will take the new work forward. With the global awareness on the issue of AMR, all countries are looking at strengthening their internal policies and practices and a review of the old guidelines by Codex should help them do so.

However, India still has some basic issues to deal with. In India, there is no ban on non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in food-producing animals and there is no monitoring of antibiotic use or resistance in food-producing animals. Further, MRLs have not been set for antibiotic residues in chicken and milk and the existing law only provides MRLs for four antibiotics in fish.

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