What is the 'The Codex Alimentarius'

You may see food labelled as containing wheat starch* that is sold as 'Gluten Free'. It is safe to eat such products as the asterix * denotes that the amount of wheat satisfies the 'Codex Alimentarius'

The Codex Alimentarius provides the gluten-free standard for European food manufacturers. 

In the European Union there is a directive on foods for special dietary uses (89/398/EEG), and this directive is the basis for all national legislation in the countries of the European Union.

Though the directive deals with gluten-free foods there is no assigned limiting level of gluten for GF food yet, so it is up to the national regulatory bodies of the member states to set their own level. There is however, an international body handling these matters: Codex Alimentarius.

Codex Alimentarius is a Geneva-based International organization jointly run by the World Health Organization and FAO , and its aim is to establish worldwide standards for foods in the broadest sense. Food legislation in many countries is based on Codex Standards, although it is not mandatory to implement them in all cases.

There is a Codex committee producing standards on food labelling, on hygiene, on composition etc., etc. There is a committee on Foods for Special Dietary Uses (FSDU) and ... there is a Standard on gluten-free Food!

The oldest Standard dates from 1981, and it says that foods may be labelled as "gluten-free" only if the nitrogen content of the protein derived from wheat is less than 50 mg N/100 gm on dry matter, which may be equivalent to about 20-30 mg gliadin in wheat starch. The calculation is quite complicated by the fact that most of the protein in wheat starch is "starch granule protein" and not gluten.

Following the adoption of the new Codex Alimentarius Standard, legislation enacting the provisions of the Standard has however recently been agreed at European level. Commission Regulation 41/20092 concerning the composition and labelling of foodstuffs suitable for people intolerant to gluten entered into force on the 10 February 2009, and applies from 1 January 2012.

The Regulation requires that foodstuffs which have been specially formulated, processed or prepared to meet the dietary needs of people intolerant to gluten and marketed as such should be labelled either as “very low gluten” (gluten content above 20 up to 100 mg/kg) or “gluten free” (gluten content not exceeding 20 mg/kg).

Those foodstuffs can be either foodstuffs which have been specially processed to reduce the gluten content of one or more gluten containing ingredients or alternatively they can be foodstuffs where the gluten containing ingredients have been substituted by other ingredients naturally free of gluten. The Regulation also allows for a normal food which does not contain ingredients derived from gluten containing grains or oats to be labelled to indicate the absence of gluten, provided they contain less than 20 mg/kg gluten.

The latest  Codex Standard 41/29 set the limiting level of gluten to 200-mg gluten/kg (20-mg/100 g) gluten-free food on dry matter.

Gluten Content

Codex No. 41/2009

Not greater than 20mg/kg

Can be labelled ‘gluten free’

20 to 100mg/kg

Label “Very low gluten

Codex Alimentarius bases its standard on scientific facts, and that's why there is no zero tolerance. There is simply no scientific evidence that this is required (at least there is no concordant view among scientists about the maximum tolerable gluten intake), and it is reasoned that any unduly reduction in the permissive level will reduce the number of GF food available unnecessary.

Though Codex Alimentarius has been criticized in the past for being a food-producer driven body it is still the only world-wide forum for food standards, and its role within the framework of the GATT and WTO makes its work of sterling importance in settling trade disputes. In 1993 the National Food Alliance (UK NGO) produced a report titled "Cracking the Codex." This report stated that even though the voting in Codex is nationwide, and quite often by consensus, there is a large impact of the producer lobby, especially in the preliminary stages of decision making.

Even though there is no implemented standard in national legislation many countries will stick to the Codex Standard. The conclusion is that in many countries food labelled as "gluten free" will almost definitely contain gluten. As the regulatory agencies of most countries will not press charges against producers of GF foods if the level is below the Codex Standard limit (though, as said, some countries may have lower regulatory levels). Codex Standards still do not have the status of national laws.

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