Setting the Record Straight
by John P. Venardos
I am sure that when former Vice President Al Gore invented the Internet, he did not intend its worldwide reach to foster the dissemination of misinformation. Unfortunately, that is exactly what has occurred recently concerning international trade in dietary supplements, financed in part by companies that are not strangers to regulatory enforcement actions.
As a recipient of thousands of unwanted emails from enraged but misguided consumers on both sides of the Atlantic, the time has come for a little straight talk. I have been one of the industry members working to expand opportunities for both manufacturers and consumers alike while participating at meetings of the Codex Alimentarius Commission.
Codex Alimentarius (which is Latin for food code) was created nearly 43 years ago by a pair of United Nations agencies: the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) under the Joint FAO/WHO Food Standards Program. Having attended Codex meetings for more than 20 years, rest assured that even if a radical proposal were ever put forth, its potential consideration would move at a snails pace (in fact, snails move faster than Codex). That is because Codex advances changes in its recommended voluntary guidelines at a slow eight-step, multi-year process.
Who attends Codex? Voting authority is lodged with delegates representing individual nations and, despite the principle of onenation, one-vote, to that collection of 25 member states known as the European Union. Also attending are non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The dietary supplement industry is represented by the International Alliance of Dietary Supplement and Food Associations (IADSA) and the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN). Also participating as NGOs are a plethora of individuals parading as moral principles, disguised as self-appointed consumer advocates.
One reason for the slow pace of Codex deliberations: a tradition steeped in consensus rather than flat-out votes. During such drawn out debates, the allure of a microphone and a platform in which to be heard tempts many a delegate whose contribution to policy debate is minimal at best.
Last summer, in the run-up to the annual meeting of the Codex Alimentarius Commission, I was but one of several CRN Codex regulars beset by e-mails from individuals misinformed by the substance of the proposed adoption of a guideline (read: voluntary) for establishing upper limits for vitamins and minerals. For the first time, this Codex guideline provides industry, consumers and governments with a real opportunity to achieve international harmonization involving the trade of vitamin and mineral supplements based on sound science and empirical methods, versus the application of arbitrary upper limits.
IADSA, CRN and member companies supporting both organizations worked long and hard to convince national regulators to take a science-based approach to setting upper limits, rather than applying the specious, subjective precautionary principle. Thanks, in part, to leadership and help from Germanys Rolf Grossklaus, the European Commissions Basil Mathioudakis and Barbara Schneeman from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), science prevailed over hyperbole. Not only did the approach win the day at the Codex Committee on Nutrition during its deliberations in November 2004, but the Codex Alimentarius Commission meeting in Rome last July adopted it as a final (voluntary) guideline without a dissenting vote.
Shortly thereafter, as Congress began debating the proposed Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), self-appointed consumer activistsperhaps fearing the loss of a lucrative fundraising issuesuggested adoption could cause U.S. consumers to lose access to dietary supplements. CRN and members firms such as Herbalife were able to separate fact from fiction when briefing U.S. lawmakers. Indeed, CAFTA contained no reference to dietary supplements and, in fact, it contained no language different from that contained in the adopted North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) or any of the other seminal international trade agreements concluded during the past decades.
Frankly, critics of Codex and CAFTA seem focused on the global trading system. Their concern is misplaced, in that by Act of Congress, our U.S. federal food law, including the provisions of the landmark Dietary Supplement Health and Education Action of 1994 (DSHEA), maintain within our nation complete and absolute legal supremacy over any standard or voluntary guideline promulgated by Codex.
John P. Venardos is the vice president of worldwide regulatory and government affairs for Herbalife International of America, Inc. He can be contacted at [email protected].