Top food and agriculture industry groups are commending U.S. officials for their leadership at the recent session of the Codex Alimentarius Commission, a global food standards-setting body created by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization.

In a letter sent last week to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, the Food Industry Codex Coalition (FICC) — which includes the American Farm Bureau, American Meat Institute and Grocery Manufacturers Association — said that although some issues were not resolved at the July Codex meeting, it was evident that U.S. outreach had “helped build a strong coalition of Codex delegations committed to supporting the scientific basis of Codex standards.”

The group urged Vilsack to keep supporting work on Codex issues at USDA in the face of budgetary challenges.

“FICC members understand the Administration is facing critical budget decisions and, consequently, it is appropriate to emphasize the valuable contribution of Codex not only to protecting consumer health, but also facilitating fair food trade practices, and helping boost U.S. exports and facilitate imports of needed products,” reads the letter.

“While fiscal 2011 U.S. Agricultural Exports are forecasted to reach a record of $137 billion, these exports are still restricted by non-science-based measures that block market access for safe, high-quality U.S. food and agricultural products. International standards that are science-based and harmonized will open these markets, thus expanding U.S. exports and increasing jobs. Strong U.S. leadership and resources to support Codex are critical to achieving these goals.”

According to the letter, FICC members worked to originally give the U.S. Codex Office a line item in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s budget in 1999.

“Since that time, the FICC and subsequent administrations have continued to support the work of Codex, increasingly recognizing how continued international outreach helps advance the development of science-based standards and encourages other delegations to support U.S. positions,” continues the letter. “FICC urges continued, strong support of U.S. engagement with Codex, including adequate and dedicated resources to continue international outreach efforts aimed at building support for science-based decision-making that will help U.S. positions prevail in international standard-setting bodies and enhance U.S. agricultural and food exports.”

In the letter, FICC noted that the dispute over setting Maximum Residue Limits (MRLs) for the animal drug Ractopamine in beef and pork was not resolved at the July Commission meeting.

“There remains much work work to do following the outcomes on certain key issues, including Ractopamine,” says FICC.

China, Taiwan, the European Union, and others have raised safety concerns and banned the drug, which is used widely in U.S. pork, beef and turkey production and approved for use in about two dozen other countries. Disagreement on drug residues has irked the U.S. and Brazil, which view the actions as non-scientific trade barriers.

The World Trade Organization uses Codex standards as a reference point for settling formal trade disputes. According to WTO, Codex has developed hundreds of food processing and hygiene standards, evaluated over 1,000 food additives and 54 veterinary drugs and set more than 3,000 maximum levels for pesticide residues since it was founded in 1963.

The letter from FICC, which was also sent to a handful of food safety officials at USDA, is available here.