The Codex Committee on Nutrition and Foods for Special Dietary Uses (CCNFSDU) just finished meeting all last week (December 3-7) in Bad Soden, a small German city near Frankfurt am Main. Nearly 300 delegates were in attendance, comprised of government functionaries and international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) representatives.  So, for one week, the assembled delegates – including the INGO delegation of the National Health Federation (NHF)[1] –met, discussed, and debated a wide number of food and food-supplement issues, including the controversial draft Nutrient Reference Values (NRVs) for vitamins and minerals.

Remember, the food guidelines and standards adopted by this Committee, and approved by the Codex Alimentarius Commission, are important because they are then used domestically by numerous countries worldwide and by virtually all countries in international food trade.

Nutrient Reference Values

Those who have been following the National Health Federation’s efforts at Codex since the mid-1990s will recall that at the Codex Nutrition Committee meeting in Dusseldorf, Germany in 2009, the NHF singlehandedly launched the opposition that stopped the Australian delegation and others from “dumbing down” these Nutrient Reference Values.[2]

Australia and its supporters had wrongly proposed that lower NRVs be adopted for certain important vitamins and minerals, including Vitamin C.  For example, the Proposed Draft Additional or Revised NRVs for Labelling Purposes in the Codex Guidelines on Nutrition Labelling suggested reducing the Vitamin A NRV from 800 micrograms down to 550 micrograms, Vitamin C down from an already-abysmally-low 60 milligrams to 45 milligrams, Thiamin down from 1.4 milligrams to 1.2 milligrams, Niacin from 18 milligrams down to 15 milligrams, Magnesium down from 300 milligrams to 240 milligrams, and so forth.[3]

These values are already at subsistence levels, and most consumers need far more than the miserable amounts that Codex would parsimoniously dole out to them in order to enjoy optimal and robust health.  Yet Australia and its supporters are so fixated on reducing the values even more that they have blinded themselves to the real science showing the absolute need for more nutrient intake, not less.

Fortunately, thanks to NHF and its key supporters India and Iraq at the 2009 meeting, the Committee wisely chose not to move forward with any of those proposed NRVs and instead held the work back for further review and study.  Three years have passed since we first stopped these NRVs from being adopted, and each year of non-adoption has been a victory for NHF, and for you.

The Electronic Working Group

Last year, the Committee created an electronic Working Group (eWG) – chaired by ever-present Australia – to look at the hard numbers for each of the vitamins and minerals under consideration.  NHF was a member of that group along with twenty other delegations.  Working through e-mails, the Australian-led eWG gradually prepared a report; and the NHF and other delegations submitted comments throughout 2012, to be included in that report.

Unfortunately, the United States seemed to have had more of Australia’s ear than anyone else; and the eWG accordingly submitted to this year’s Committee a Final Report (over NHF’s objections) that essentially split the vitamins and minerals into two groups: One that the “eWG” (read here, Australia and the United States) considered “suitable” for adoption; and a second group that was considered “unsuitable” and would need further work.[4]

Strangely enough, this was exactly the approach pushed by the United States at the 2010 CCNFSDU meeting held in Santiago, Chile, but which NHF, the European Union, and others had opposed and defeated back then.  Resurrected from its vampire grave just in time for this 2012 meeting, this plan found support with both Australia and the United States working hard to ensure that, this time, at least half of the dumbed-down nutrient values could be pushed forward towards adoption.

The 2012 Meeting

As planned, the Committee once again took up discussion of the appropriate NRVs for Codex to adopt, using the eWG Report as its starting point. Of course, the Committee covered other topics, such as draft guidelines on the addition of essential nutrients to foods and formulated supplementary foods for older infants and children.  The latter was as hotly-debated a topic as the NRVs.

The Chairwoman was once again Dr. Pia Noble, appointed by the German Health Ministry.  Co-NHF delegate, Katherine Carroll, spent time during breaks speaking with Dr. Noble to advance NHF, but it is clear that Dr. Noble has little regard for the INGOs, who are just nuisances getting in the way of pushing her agenda forward.  Not surprisingly, Dr. Noble is popular with some of the delegates because, as they put it, “she moves things along.”

Well, “moving things along” – like “Fly Me To The Moon” – has become something of a theme song for this Codex Committee. Real nutritional science is trampled into the mud as the Committee rushes pell-mell to adopt guidelines and standards without considering the consequences of what it is doing. Unfortunately only a few delegates realize what is happening, the majority are content to drift along in concert with and at the direction of the few leaders.

On the second day of the meeting, just before the lunch break, the Australian delegate, Janine Lewis, read through her eWG Final Report while we all listened. I knew what was coming because I had spoken with her before the meeting had started, asking her to, at the very least, withhold calcium from her “suitable” list of nutrients that she would advance for adoption.[5]  When she asked and heard in response that I had only spoken with her and the U.S. delegate about that, her position visibly hardened and she told me simply, “Let’s see what the Committee does.”

It became obvious soon enough what the Committee would do, as I pushed the button on my microphone to speak when the meeting resumed after the lunch break.  As in 2009, I was the second person to speak!  This is highly unusual since the Codex procedure is to let all of the country delegations speak first, and only then allow the INGOs to speak.  Being second meant that there were few who wanted to speak out on this issue.

Barbara Schneeman, the U.S. delegate, had spoken immediately before me and said the U.S. “liked these [NRV] figures” and thus liked the idea of advancing the “suitable” nutrients[6] to the Commission for adoption.  With that, my microphone illuminated red and it was my turn to speak.  I told the Committee that, except for calcium (whose value had been increased while magnesium’s had been decreased, the exact opposite of what should happen with these twin minerals), the Australian figures were all too low, that the NRVs were being reduced by anywhere from 15% to 25%, and questioned why Australia was always choosing the lowest values it could find, even lower than what the guidelines would call for.  The safety of vitamins and minerals, I argued, was unparalleled, so that there could be no problem with having higher levels of these nutrients. Moreover, lowering the NRVs was inconsistent with Codex’s announced goal of preventing malnutrition.

The International Alliance of Dietary Food Supplements Associations (IADSA) and the International Dairy Federation (IDF) spoke up after NHF, both attacking the proposed values of a specific nutrient – IADSA advocating a higher value for Biotin and IDF a lower value for Calcium (because the higher value would mean that milk could no longer be considered a “rich” source of calcium).  The Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), to the confusion of many, simply said “We would like to stress the scientific underpinnings of these numbers.”  Did that mean they supported the values, or opposed them?  It sounded more like the former, but we could not tell.

As expected, Australia responded in defense of the dumbed-down NRVs; and NHF then challenged those numbers yet again.  But this time, the Malaysian, Iranian, and South African delegates spoke up one right after another in strong support of NHF and in favor of more sensible NRVs. It was heartening to hear these three women speak out for sensible nutrition based upon real science.[7]

NHF and IADSA spoke up again, respectively opposing the adoption of any of these values and, in the case of IADSA, the Biotin value.  The European Union (EU) delegate, Basil Mathioudakis, quite sensibly asked the Chairwoman what logic did it make to advance some and not all of the NRVs at the same time.  Switzerland disagreed with the EU, but NHF spoke up in support of the EU’s question and suggested that the so-called “suitable” NRVs be held back, or at the very least some of the more questionable ones such as Calcium and Vitamin K.  IADSA, in turn, pointed out that the Committee was going against its own guidelines by not selecting the proper value, a higher value, for Biotin.

But the Chairwoman, Pia Noble, was having none of that and insisted that these “suitable” NRVs were going forward despite the substantial opposition.  In a last-ditch effort, I asked the Chairwoman to at least move the Vitamin K, Biotin, and Calcium from the “suitable” Table to the “unsuitable” category. Not only was the answer “no,” but Dr. Noble decided that since opposition might grow against these so-called “suitable” NRVs, then they should be advanced along the path of adoption as quickly as possible.  So, she unilaterally undertook to advance them along the 8-Step adoption process to Step 5/8, where they now hover on the edge of full adoption by the Commission itself next year.

As an added insult, the following day, the Committee discussed another Agenda Item, that is, revisions to the Codex General Principles for the Addition of Essential Nutrients to Foods, which in small but important part dealt with the question of whether Codex should or could state that nutrients can prevent or reduce the risk of disease.  Amazingly enough, many delegations spoke out against such language.  Only the U.S. delegation and two INGOs (NHF and GAIN) defended this statement.

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