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WTO News Item, 13-14 July 2017
WTO members adopted a report on the Fourth Review of the Agreement on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS) at a meeting on 13 and 14 July. The SPS Committee also reviewed concerns on food safety measures affecting international trade.
Fourth review report adopted
Members adopted by acclamation a report on the Fourth Review of the SPS Agreement (G/SPS/W/280/Rev.2) [See link below]. The adoption has taken over three years due to members’ disagreement over a recommendation that the Committee consider problems relating to private standards on food safety, animal and plant health.
Members finally reached a compromise on 14 July by introducing wording suggesting that members are unable to agree on that recommendation.
The SPS Agreement requires the Committee to review its operation and implementation three years after the entry into force of the agreement, and thereafter at least once every four years. The report of the Committee’s third review was adopted in March 2010.
The Committee Chair, Marcial Espínola Ramirez of Paraguay, reported that a group of African members had emphasized that the subject of private standards and their effect on market access was very important to them, and they wished to retain the possibility of discussing the issue in the SPS Committee.
The chair reassured members that this would be possible, as the report also contains a recommendation that encourages members to “provide information on any relevant studies or analysis which they have undertaken, or of which they are aware”, and the committee should continue to implement agreed actions in document G/SPS/55. This document calls on the SPS Committee to develop a working definition of SPS-related private standards, and regularly inform other standard setting bodies regarding the developments in its consideration, among other actions.
Specific trade concerns
The SPS Committee reviewed five new trade concerns and 13 previously raised trade concerns regarding food safety, plant and animal health measures.
New trade concerns
Senegal said that India’s mandatory fumigation requirement is problematic for some countries because the chemical required for fumigation — methyl bromide — is highly toxic and damages the ozone layer. Senegal stopped using this product in 2002, resorting instead to different treatments which it requested to be considered as equivalent by India. Senegal reported on ongoing consultations with the Indian authorities, and said that the measure had not yet been applied to products from Senegal.
Senegal’s concern was echoed by Burkina Faso, Nigeria, the Russian Federation, Togo, Madagascar and Kenya. They said that methyl bromide has been banned in many countries as part of their commitment to limit the use of substances depleting the ozone layer. Although members respected India’s right to protect plant health, they noted that measures should be commensurate with the risks, and they urged India to acknowledge other treatments that could achieve the same level of protection. India said that the relaxation of the measure had been extended until 31 December 2017, and required exporting members to provide their scientific background to its National Plant Protection Organization.
The United States raised concerns with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) proposed Guide for Control of Imported Foods. The Guide classifies food items according to their potential to transmit food-borne diseases, and requires a health control on all imported food.
The US welcomed Kuwait’s and Bahrain’s notification that they will not implement the Guide until further notice, and asked that all GCC members follow their example, to prevent confusion and ensure that mutually beneficial food trade remains uninterrupted, the US said. Brazil also registered its interest in this matter.
Bahrain, on behalf of the GCC, stated that the implementation of the Guide was suspended until further notice, and that formal notifications from remaining GCC members would follow.
Montenegro raised concerns regarding Russia’s import ban on wine products in April this year based on consumer health concerns, without prior notice. Montenegro said that its wine products have an impeccable record of compliance with sanitary regulations, and reported on information-sharing bilateral meetings with Russian authorities. Montenegro requested Russia lift the restriction and a joint control of the confiscated wine. Moldova added its voice and stressed the need to better understand Russian food safety standards.
Russia said the temporary prohibition of imports was introduced after its authority found that Montenegrin alcohol failed to meet its pesticide norms. Russia encouraged Montenegro to provide information on its compliance.
Ecuador raised a concern about Brazil’s import suspension of bananas from Ecuador since 1997 for sanitary reasons. Ecuador informed the committee of the steps taken to gain access to the Brazilian market, including on-site visits, food safety and quality justifications, and urged Brazil to implement their bilateral phytosanitary agreements.
Brazil responded that it had set up a working group to finalise the risk assessment of diseases that affect bananas from Ecuador, and submitted its conclusions to Ecuador in June. Following requests of modifications of the proposed measure, new language was being discussed by both members.
Previously raised concerns
Members once again expressed concern with the EU’s proposed criteria to define chemicals that can interfere with hormone systems — endocrine disrupters. They argued that the EU’s proposal, if adopted, would disrupt trade of many agricultural products that use pesticides, where alternative less trade distorting measures could be adopted to achieve the same level of protection of human health.
The concern was initially raised by Argentina, China and the US, and supported by over 20 delegations. Many said that the EU’s approach was based on the existence of a hazard, rather than on the actual risk posed to health and the environment. It was therefore overly restrictive and not based on scientific evidence, members said.
Some members also questioned the process and the timeline for adopting the proposal, arguing that once it was adopted, exporters would not have enough time to adjust their agriculture production, thus losing access to the EU market.
The EU, for its part, responded that it had acted in full transparency to inform WTO members of the proposed measure and its regulatory process. It explained that representatives of EU member states had voted in favour of the proposed criteria. The European Parliament and Council will now have three months to examine the text, and if not opposed by either body, the Commission will adopt it. In the absence of adoption, current criteria apply.
The United States voiced concerns over China’s requirement for food exporters to provide official certificates issued by China’s General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine Administration (AQSIQ). The measure would require a range of imported food products – including low-risk processed, shelf-stable foods – to be accompanied by official certificates, the US said.
The concern was echoed by a range of WTO members — Israel, Singapore, Costa Rica, Canada, Australia, Mexico, Japan, the EU, Chile, Norway and Switzerland. They said that the new requirement would pose significant uncertainties and higher costs of compliance for food exporters, and requested that China delay its implementation until members’ concerns were addressed.
Under another agenda item on the “use of international standards”, the US noted that the requirement for official certificates appears to be proliferating, which poses an “unmanageable degree of complexity” for exporters and importers and adds “cost and burdens to food trade”.
China, in its response, said that it had become the world’s largest importer of food and agriculture products in recent years, and that the requirement of official certificates was to guarantee the safety of the global food supply chain. China clarified that a “transitional period may be provided as requested”, and expected to strengthen communication and cooperation with members on the matter.
The United States, supported by Argentina and Canada, again raised concerns over France’s ban of fresh cherries from countries that approve the use of the pesticide dimethoate on cherries. The US said that the ban was based solely on the authorization of a pesticide in the country of origin, rather than on a risk assessment of the safety of residues. Furthermore, the US noted that France has selectively banned cherry imports, while no action is taken on other commodities that may contain dimethoate residues. “This focus on a single commodity – a commodity of which France is a significant producer — raises questions with regard to the motivation for the measure,” the US said.
The EU, in response, said that the pesticide might post serious risk to consumers, following which the French authorities introduced this emergency measure. The European Food Safety Authority is evaluating new studies on dimethoate and expects to issue its opinion in spring 2018.
Update on Brazil’s measures on animal products.
Brazil, under the agenda item “other business”, updated members on its recent actions to ensure the safety of its meat and meat products after recent scandals in Brazil involving irregularities in meat inspections.
Brazil has updated its Sanitary Inspection Regulation to fight economic fraud and improve food safety, imposing severe penalties from heavy fines to losing the federal inspection approval seal, Brazil said. In addition, the Ministry of Agriculture established a compliance programme to enhance prevention and correct misconduct, which provides a certification to enrolled companies.
Brazil stressed that the irregularities identified were related to economic fraud and did not compromise the safety and quality of the products consumed in Brazil and exported to other markets. “We therefore remain confident that our sanitary controls are robust and trustworthy and we thank our trade partners that have expressed confidence in our system by keep their markets open to our animal products,” Brazil said.
Thematic session on regionalization
Members heard a report of the thematic session on regionalization held prior to the formal meeting based on a proposal by the European Union (G/SPS/W/293). It provided members with the opportunity to increase their awareness of the regionalization principle — adaptation of SPS measures to regional conditions — and its relevant guidelines (G/SPS/48), as well as to share their national experiences on its implementation. Members also received an overview of the matter, its opportunities and challenges from the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE).
A copy of the Fourth Review of the SPS Agreement (G/SPS/W/280/Rev.2) is available on this site. Note however that this may not contain the compromise mentioned above. See: G/SPS/W/280/Rev.2