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UN/CEFACT standards lay foundation for paperless exchange of certificates for USD 1.8 trillion food trade

Paperless trade certificate

Annually, food in total value of over USD 1.8 trillion is traded between nations and global exports of food have increased on average by seven per cent per year in the last 20 years. In this trade, trust and quality controls are essential to protect consumers and maintain the industry. The exchange of food certificates is the main instrument to control this trade.

The Codex Alimentarius Commission, a joint 189-member body of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO), creates international food standards to protect the health of consumers and ensure fair practices in the food trade. The Commission has established the Codex Committee on Food Import and Export Inspection and Certification Systems (CCFICS) as the global body to develop principles and guidelines for food inspection and certification systems. By implementing CCFICS instruments, Governments support fair trading practices, protect the health of consumers, and reduce food degradation and waste in international trade.

The recent CCFICS25 discussed a draft guidance document on Paperless Use of Electronic Certificates, which includes an electronic version of the generic Model Official Certificate. Parties at the meeting approved this milestone document for submission to the next session of the Codex Alimentarius Commission (November 2021) for final adoption.

The proposed guidance will transform food trade in the future by enabling paperless exchange of electronic certificates for food between Competent Authorities of different countries, decreasing both the time and costs of trade – an increasing priority amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. The paperless use of electronic certificates can also be connected with the application of modern, risk-based methods and electronic methods to support controls and inspections of food, a measure that will further strengthen the application of rules and regulations and protect the health of consumers.  

Crucial to the introduction of electronic certificates for food is the electronic version of the Generic Model Official Certificate which explains the structure and the meaning of the information that will be exchanged and used by all Parties. This is where the UN/eCERT standard comes in. UN/eCERT was developed by the United Nations Centre for Trade Facilitation and electronic Business (UN/CEFACT), a global standardization body which operates under the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE).

UN/CEFACT standards allow for interoperability and information exchange in international trade and are becoming increasingly important for the sustainability of agricultural trade and to address trade-related environmental challenges. For example, UN/CEFACT standards are used to ensure sustainable use of global fisheries (UN/FLUX standard), to control legal international trade in protected species of wild flora and fauna under the CITES Convention through exchange of electronic certificates (eCITES), and to promote safe trade under the International Plant Protection Convention such as under the IPPC/WTO ePhyto initiative.

The new proposed draft Codex Guidelines and their reference to the wider body of UN/CEFACT standards will further promote the introduction and use of modern, standards-based electronic methods in international trade, to enhance its sustainability, to reduce the use of paper documents and environmental impact, and to protect the interests of citizens and consumers.  

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