The promise of alt proteins
We know that it will be scientifically impossible for governments to meet their obligations under the Paris Climate Agreement to decarbonize the global economy unless the amount of meat produced through conventional animal agriculture goes down. The promise of alternative proteins—plant-based and cultivated meat made in more secure, agile, and resilient ways—is gaining worldwide traction. As alternative proteins become increasingly popular worldwide, international guidance on alternative proteins should be as straightforward, fair, and efficient as possible. Codex standards will be key to achieving this and ensuring harmonization across countries.
What is Codex?
Run jointly by the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO), Codex Alimentarius is a key set of global practices, guidelines, and standards that influence international food trade, safety, and regulation, often serving as the basis for national legislation. The Codex Alimentarius Commission is the corresponding international body of 189 global members — nearly every country in the world! — who shape these standards.
While Codex standards are voluntary, some countries—especially low- and middle-income countries with developing food laws—adopt them legislatively or use them as models for their own standards. In addition, some international trade agreements like the World Trade Organization’s Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures, use Codex standards as a reference point, giving them a heightened legal status in countries that participate in those agreements.
A seat at the table
In February 2021, GFI was granted official observer status in the Codex Alimentarius Commission, allowing us to participate in developing standards for the alternative protein sector and to attend meetings of individual Codex committees relevant to our work. As the former Chairperson of the Codex Alimentarius Commission Guilherme da Costa noted in an interview with GFI Brazil’s Director of Science and Technology Katherine de Matos last year, “the work of the observer through representation within the committees and within the meetings is, in my opinion, absolutely essential.”
In October, the FAO and WHO added an agenda item to the 44th Session of Codex Alimentarius Commission on the topic of new foods and production systems, which is defined broadly to include “cell culture-based food products (meat, fish, dairy),” “plant-based protein alternatives,” and “3-D printed foods,” as well as seaweed, microalgae, and insects.
In light of this attention to alternative proteins, GFI has been working with a variety of stakeholders over the past few months to ensure a favorable environment for alternative proteins in Codex.
Ahead of the November Commission meeting, GFI submitted a Conference Room Document (CRD) which advocates for an open process to consider these issues and invites the FAO and WHO to call on us to provide technical assistance as well as introduce them to companies and scientists in the alternative protein space. Our CRD also urges the Commission to begin gathering information about new food technologies and prepare a discussion paper for consideration. To maximize accessibility, GFI’s affiliates across the globe worked to provide our document in all six official Codex languages. This CRD is a strong first step in ensuring that Codex can help develop an environment favorable to consumers and innovation.
GFI then had the chance to present our position at the Commission’s 44th meeting, advocating for an inclusive approach to incorporating alternative proteins into its standards-making processes. After we worked with alternative protein companies to reach out to member countries, more than 20 Codex members and observers spoke out on our topic, many agreeing with us that an inclusive approach to the process is critical.
The Codex Alimentarius Commission proposed two next steps: a circular letter and the establishment of a subcommittee to the Codex Executive Committee focused on novel foods. The circular letter is similar to a “request for comments” from the U.S. government and will request information from Codex member countries and observers (including GFI) on ongoing developments related to alternative proteins, such as regulatory initiatives to address safety or fair trade practices. The subcommittee will then consider this information and prepare a report assessing “the range and suitability of Codex tools that could be used to progress work on safety, quality, labelling, nutrition and/or fair trade practices related to new food sources and production systems.” This report would include recommendations for the next meeting of the full Commission in 2023.
Now GFI and the industry have an opportunity to weigh in as subject matter experts as Codex shapes its approach to these issues going forward. To ensure industry involvement, GFI also convened an informal working group from across the three technology pillars (plant-based, cultivated, and fermentation) to come together to provide assistance to Codex members as they establish standards and guidance to shape alternative protein policy around the world.
GFI remains prepared to be a resource on alternative proteins for Codex members, including Executive Committee members who will oversee its work relating to New Foods & Production Systems. Our dedicated teams of scientists and policy specialists are ready to work with Codex to build a regulatory framework that supports a more sustainable, secure, and just global food system.
If you’d like to get involved, contact our Lead Regulatory Counsel Laura Braden to learn more.