International Food Safety Standards 1955-1975
In this project, I focus on the Codex Alimentarius (or "Food Code"), a joint initiative of the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Health Organization (WHO). Emerging in the early 1960s, the Food Code established maximum tolerances for pesticide residues, microbes and chemical food additives, as well as standard laboratory methods for analyzing food in order to protect health and facilitate transport and trade. I examine the knowledge production stage of their life cycle within their parent organizations, and adopt the idiom of ‘co-production’ to argue how these food safety standards incorporate, represent and direct both the natural and social orders.
The standards were constructed to contain scientific and technical information as well as economic, administrative, political and cultural elements. Joining other post-World War II organizations, many of whom enlisted scientific experts to collect and produce food “data”, the Codex not only produced this knowledge but disseminated it internationally.
Through these efforts, an intensified focus on food as scientific objects of inquiry emerged. I argue that standards represented portable ‘archives’ of information first developed by communities of experts and housed within institutions; then dispersed to public health authorities, government, trade groups, industries, and the general public. In addition to describing numerical limits and parameters, the standards also advocated behavioural guidelines for anyone in contact with the food object, or, specifications that might either impinge upon or promote the cultural heritage embodied by the food object; for example control of hygiene habits of labourers who work in abbatoirs or prohibitions on the use of raw (e.g., unpasteurized) milk in cheese products. Standards are thus ‘thick’ with meaning: not only are they collections of numerical data and parameters, but they also direct cultural traditions, social behaviour and practices.