WTO News Item, 2 and 3 April 2008
WTO members have reached an apparent consensus on two sets of procedures aimed at strengthening their work on sanitary and phytosanitary measures (SPS, ie, food safety and animal and plant health). One is on recognizing that regions (within a country or spanning borders) are free from diseases or pests, the other is on improving the information they share with each other, a crucially important part of member governments' work in the WTO. Both were approved conditionally in the WTO SPS Committee's 2–3 April 2008 meeting, and will be adopted if no one objects within the next few weeks.
Also discussed were a number of concerns members raised about specific measures other governments have introduced, including some related to issues that have been raised several times before such as avian influenza (“bird flu”), foot and mouth disease, and BSE (“mad cow disease”).
And the meeting heard a warning that standards set by private bodies could undermine the science-based and democratically agreed standards of multilateral organizations and cause difficulties for developing countries.
The caution came from Dr Bernard Vallat, director-general of the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) in the latest of a series of discussions about standards set by the private sector, in particular supermarket chains and bodies representing them.
This was the first time the head of the OIE has attended a WTO SPS Committee meeting. The multilateral standard-setting organizations he had in mind are in particular, the OIE and the SPS Committee's two other “sisters” — Codex Alimentarius, which deals with food safety, and the International Plant Protection Convention.
The week began with a workshop on SPS capacity evaluation tools organized under the jointly-run Standards and Trade Development Facility
The SPS Committee comprises all WTO members and is responsible for overseeing the implementation of the WTO SPS Agreement.
The key concept here is recognition that an exporting region (part of a country or a border-straddling zone) is disease-free or pest-free (or has a lower incidence). When importing countries recognize different situations in different regions, their restrictions on products from areas with disease do not apply to whole countries. It is often raised as a specific trade concern as well as being discussed as a subject in its own right. (The issues are outlined in a Secretariat paper, G/SPS/GEN/640/Rev.1)
The text that members conditionally adopted comes from the work of a small group of countries, coordinated by New Zealand and is a compromise after about one year of work within the group and five years of discussion in the SPS Committee. It has been circulated in document G/SPS/W/218), as non-binding guidelines for implementing regionalization. These include various recommended steps to be taken by an importing and an exporting country discussion a region's status.
In an informal meeting on 1 April, some countries involved in the group signalled their disappointment that the guidelines are not stronger in trying to avoid “undue delays” in recognizing a region's status. But others urged them to accept the compromise so that what has been agreed so far can be implemented; the guidelines can be revised in the future on the basis of experience, they said.
The committee formally agreed that if no member objects by 15 May, the guidelines will be adopted. (Officially, the committee has adopted the guidelines “ad referendum”.)
Also adopted provided no one objects — this time by 30 May — are revised recommendations on how governments provide information on new or proposed measures they take on food safety and animal and plant health.
Sharing and commenting on this information is one of the SPS Committee's most important tasks — members use the committee to ensure that SPS measures comply with the WTO agreement, meaning they are based on science or international standards and are not protectionism in disguise.
The new recommendations will be a third revision of the present set, G/SPS/7/Rev.2. They include new procedures and forms for notifications, details of new on-line databases where the notifications and other relevant information is compiled, and they encourage WTO members also to notify when they adopt international standards. (A draft of the latest revision can be seen in G/SPS/W/215/Rev.1, with final amendments to be circulated soon as G/SPS/W/215/Rev.2. Find both here.
(If the “regionalization” guidelines are not adopted, their transparency provisions will be inserted into this text.)
Meanwhile, information is increasingly being made available through on-line technology. Members were briefed on further enhancements to the WTO's SPS Information Management System, a searchable database for all notifications, specific trade concerns raised in the committee and other information, the FAO's International Portal on Food Safety, Animal and Plant Health and a similar “portal” of the International Plant Protection Convention.
Specific trade concerns (STCs)
Code numbers, eg, “STC229”, identify particular issues and can be used to search the WTO's SPS Information Management System
These are some of the concerns raised. For a full list, see P.S. below.
Specific trade concerns: resolved
Canada 's restrictions on enoki mushrooms (STC229): Chinese Taipei said Canada has allowed imports to resume following consultations and Canadian officials' visits to production sites.
Japan 's import suspension on Chinese heat-processed straw and forage for feed (STC222): China said Japan 's ban has been lifted following consultations and site visits.
Specific trade concerns: new
The EU's proposed maximum residue levels for ethephon in pineapple: Ecuador , supported by Costa Rica , said the EU's proposed new maximum residue level of 0.5mg/kg for this plant growth regulator is too low, not based on science and stricter than the international standard of Codex Alimentarius. The EU replied that its own producers would also have to meet the proposed new limit and are also concerned, and invited the two countries to provide scientific evidence to show that the proposed new limit is too strict.
Malaysia's charges for on-site inspection missions: Brazil — supported by the EU, Australia and New Zealand — complained that Malaysia's new charge of $30,000 per establishment is exorbitant, particularly since the results are only valid for a year, requiring annual inspections for approvals to be extended. Malaysia said that the costs of inspecting on SPS and Halal grounds has risen considerably, but that the new costs are not in place yet. The comments will be transmitted to Kuala Lumpur , Malaysia said.
US regulatory process, including need for economic analysis: Brazil questioned whether SPS regulations should also require economic analysis and whether this would delay or disrupt approval for imports. The US replied that the requirement applies to all new regulations so that the government can assess the economic impact, but that SPS measures are only based on science and risk assessment.
Specific trade concerns: unresolved
Among the issues that have been raised before and remain unresolved
India 's restrictions on animal products (STC185): This is an on-going concern related to avian influenza raised by the EU, supported by Australia and the US . The EU said although some restrictions have been relaxed, others remain, even though they are not based on science or the standards of the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE). For example India should not restrict imports of heat treated products, where any virus would have been destroyed, and pigmeat, the EU said.
India said the measures are necessary because of the huge risks to livestock and humans on small farms. (The EU had a similar concern over Egypt 's restrictions on heat-treated products.)
Private sector standards
Following OIE Director-General Bernard Vallat's comments on private sector standards, members agreed to consider setting up a small group to work on this issue — they will discuss this in June.
Uruguay and Egypt led a group of developing countries highly critical of private sector standards on the grounds that the standards are arbitrary and can be difficult for developing countries to meet. They said the SPS Agreement obliges governments to ensure non-governmental bodies also respect the agreement. Others said that like it or not, the private sector will continue to set these standards for a variety of issues, ranging from sustainability and organic production to animal welfare. The World Bank, an observer, said research shows that meeting private standards does not always penalize developing countries and in some cases helps them to export.
However members generally agreed with Dr Vallat that the SPS Committee's focus should be on health and safety issues. His comments were an introduction to his organization's new paper G/SPS/GEN/822.
Private sector entities setting up their own standards include supermarket chains and “GLOBALGAP”, previously the Euro-Retailer Produce Working Group's EurepGap — GAP is “good agricultural practices”.
When first raised in 2005, this issue took the SPS Committee into comparatively new territory — the committee generally deals with standards set by international standards-setting bodies and those imposed by governments. Private sector standards were first raised in June 2005 by St Vincent and the Grenadines , because of private standards for bananas. St Vincent and the Grenadines complained that private standards are often more rigid than international standards, causing small farmers to suffer.
Since then the issue has been raised regularly in the SPS Committee, and a workshop on private and commercial standards was organized by the WTO and UNCTAD on Monday 25 June 2007 (see details).
Chairperson: Mr Marinus PC Huige of the Netherlands
These dates (with informal meetings on other days in the week) could still be changed:
P.S. These are some of the trade issues or concerns discussed in the meeting or information supplied to the meeting.
Information from members
Consideration of specific notifications received