updated 7/2/2008 2:56:20 PM ET 2008-07-02T18:56:20

A U.N. food commission has adopted a new standard for the production and handling of powdered infant formula in a bid to prevent diseases in young children, health officials said Wednesday.

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The benchmark, adopted by the Codex Alimentarius Commission, contains a series of measures for powdered baby formula to reduce the risk of contamination from a bacteria that can lead to serious illness, said Peter Ben Embarek, a food safety scientist with the World Health Organization.

A few years ago when babies became ill and even died because infant formula in developing countries was contaminated or was mixed with dirty water, it became clear that some products were unsafe, he said.

In China, for example, a producer in 2005 put too little nutritional value in an infant formula, leaving children malnourished and killing some of them.

The new standard includes recommendations for parents and caretakers on how to prepare the bottles for babies and how to safely store them, Embarek said.

"If you don't store the bottles properly, then you allow growth of these bacteria and the recontamination of the powder and therefore increase the risk of having this infection at the end," he said.

The codex commission, which has 174 member countries plus the European Union, adopted the standard during its annual meeting held this week in Geneva.

Up to individual countries to enforce standards
The commission, set up by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N. and the World Health Organization, is a worldwide reference for food safety for consumers and trade of foodstuffs. It is up to individual countries to adopt and enforce the standards.

The commission also adopted guidelines to assess the potential health risk should genetically modified animals be used for food.

Although food made from GM animals has yet to come on the market, the commission decided to anticipate industry developments to make sure such food receives proper risk assessment before it reaches the consumer.

"There are developments in a number of countries," said Jorgen Schlundt, a scientist in WHO's food safety division. "But whether a specific country decides to go on and put it on the market, that's really not our (business)."

"GM food can be good to solve problems," Schlundt said, referring to plants modified so that they can withstand dry weather or rice containing vitamin A.

"But GM food can also have risks and therefore we have to do risk assessment before using it," he said.

The commission has already adopted similar guidelines for risk assessment for genetically modified plants and microorganisms.

Another new standard adopted by the commission states that food labeled gluten-free may not contain wheat, rye, barley or oats and the gluten level must not exceed 20 milligrams per kilogram.

Allergy to gluten is known as celiac disease. Symptoms include abdominal pain, joint pain, bloating, constipation and diarrhea.

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