The Codex Commission agreed in principle that the safety of food derived from genetically modified organisms (GMO) should be tested and approved by governments prior to entering the market. In particular, GMO foods should be tested for their potential to cause allergic reactions.
"This is the first global step toward the safety assessment of genetically modified foods," said WHO Director-General Gro Harlem Brundtland.
"International agreement on how to perform risk assessment of genetically modified foods will help all countries, especially developing countries," added Dr Brundtland.
The 24th session of the Codex Commission will close on Saturday afternoon. The Commission is a subsidiary of FAO/WHO with 165 member states.
The Commission also approved a series of new maximum levels of environmental contaminants, particularly lead, cadmium, and aflatoxin, found in food, such as fruit juices, cereals, and milk.
"The work of the Codex Commission on toxic substances is particularly important given the long-term health risks for consumers, especially children," said Alan Randell, Secretary of the Codex Commission.
"For example, lead is detrimental to the intellectual development of young children and the new standards adopted by the Commission definitely improve the current situation. Nevertheless there is more work to do and the Commission will continue to work on the issue," Randell said.
The Codex Commission also set maximum levels of aflatoxin in milk and milk products. Aflatoxin is a carcinogenic substance that can be transmitted from animal feed (for examples, peanuts and corn) into milk. The new maximum limit for aflatoxin in milk is 0.5 micrograms per kilogram.
Some countries argued for a stricter aflatoxin limit of 0.05 micrograms per kilogram. However the majority of countries agreed that the higher limit was more feasible, particularly in developing countries. The Commission agreed to review the standard once there is new scientific evidence on alflatoxin health risks.
"Given the amount of dairy products that are consumed world wide - especially by children - it was crucial to set a global standard for aflatoxin," said Tom Billy, Chairman of the Codex Commission.
The Codex meeting also agreed to new guidelines for organic livestock production. According to these guidelines, organic livestock farming should aim to use natural breeding methods, minimize stress in animals, prevent disease, and progressively eliminate the use of certain chemical veterinary drugs, including antibiotics. Animals should mainly be fed with high quality organic feed, not meat and bone meal, although fish and milk products are acceptable. The use of growth hormones is not permitted.
The Commission adopted a strategic framework that places greater emphasis on food safety issues in developing countries. Members welcomed efforts to enable developing countries to build their own food quality and safety systems.
In that regard, FAO has initiated a Global Facility on Food Safety and Quality for the Least Developed Countries to strengthen their national food regulatory systems and their competitiveness in international food trade. Meanwhile, the WHO has proposed the creation of a trust fund to increase the participation of developing countries in Codex.
While Codex standards, guidelines and recommendations are voluntary, they are recognized by the World Trade Organization as reference points in international trade disputes.