What You Don’t Know About the Codex Can Hurt You: How Trade Policy Trumps Global Health Governance in Infant and Young Child Nutrition

Document Type : Original Article


1 Economics Department, University of California, Davis, Davis, CA, USA

2 Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition, Deakin University, Geelong, VIC, Australia

3 University of California, Davis, Davis, CA, USA

4 Centre for Primary Care and Public Health, Queen Mary University, London, UK


International food standards set by the Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC), have become more prominent in international trade politics, since being referenced by various World Trade Organization (WTO) agreements. We examine how this impacts implementation of the World Health Organization (WHO) International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes.

Using trade in commercial milk formulas (CMFs) as a case study, we collected detailed data on interventions across various WTO bodies between 1995 and 2019. We used language from these interventions to guide data collection on member state and observer positions during the CAC review of the Codex Standard for Follow-up Formula (CSFUF), and during CAC discussions on the relevance of WHO policies and guidelines.

Exporting member states made 245 interventions regarding CMFs at the WTO, many citing deviations from standards set by the CAC. These did not occur in formal disputes, but in WTO Committee and Accession processes, toward many countries. In Thailand, complaints are linked to weakened regulation. Exporters also sought to narrow the CSFUF at the CAC in a way that is at odds with recommendations in the International Code. Tensions are growing more broadly within the CAC regarding relevance of WHO recommendations. Countries coordinated during WTO committee processes to advocate for reapportioning core WHO funding to the CAC and in order to further influence standard-setting.

The commercial interests of the baby food industry are magnifying inconsistencies between health guidelines set by the WHO, standard-setting at the CAC, and functions of the WTO. This poses serious concerns for countries’ abilities to regulate in the interests of public health, in this case to protect breastfeeding and its benefits for the health of infants, children and mothers.



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  • Receive Date: 15 January 2021
  • Revise Date: 25 July 2021
  • Accept Date: 17 August 2021