WTO News Item, 26 February 2009
WTO members' examination of private sector standards is moving into its second phase after a group of 30 delegations discussed the responses to a new questionnaire on the issue, the committee dealing with food safety and animal and plant health heard on 26 February 2009.
Private sector standards are arousing a considerable amount of interest among some WTO members, in this Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS) Committee (and also the Technical Barriers to Trade Committee). But they are proving tricky to deal with in an organization whose members are only governments and whose agreements are only binding on governments, not directly on companies or private sector organizations.
The latest questionnaire is a fact-finding exercise about actual experiences with private sector standards. After a further period for members to reply, the responses will be compiled into a single document and circulated to the full membership before the SPS Committee meets again in June, members were told. After that, the ad hoc group, comprising delegations that replied to an earlier questionnaire (on how the committee should approach the issue), will prepare an analytical report, which is expected to propose concrete action for the committee to consider, chairperson Marinus Huige reported.
Also discussed in the committee meeting, which began on 25 February, were a number of specific trade concerns. Many of these were bilateral, several dealt with issues that have been raised many times in the committee, such as mad cow disease (BSE or bovine spongiform encephalopathy) and bird flu (avian influenza), and some concerned measures proposed to be adopted at a regional level. A few issues were withdrawn from the agenda because delegates had met just before the meeting and settled these trade concerns.
As with virtually all WTO bodies, the SPS Committee consists of all WTO members with some international organizations as observers.
Private sector standards
A meeting of the 30-member ad hoc working group earlier in the week focused on 14 members' responses to a new questionnaire circulated in December 2008, the chairperson reported. A number of members indicated that it was difficult to get the requested information, and the deadline for more members to reply was extended by a few months.
The chairperson said the replies show that from the point of view of supplying companies and producers, the private standards are the only or the main conditions that they feel they have to comply with in order to gain access to importing markets — they do not distinguish between private standards and international or national norms set by governments.
The ad hoc group heard that complying with the private standards can help gain access to markets, the chairperson reported, but it does not necessarily mean a better price, and for small producers the standards can be too varied and too costly to meet.
One of the main complaints is that the private sector standards are stricter than the international norms that are set openly and based on science.
“An underlying preoccupation of a number of participants in the group was the importance of preserving the principles and relevance of the SPS Agreement in international trade matters related to sanitary and phytosanitary issues, and in not undermining the value of international standards”, Mr Huige reported.
But the ad hoc group also heard some different views. One was that private standards and certification play an important role in assuring consumers that products are safe, the chairperson said. The group also showed interest in the workings of an initiative (“ChileGap”) of Chilean producers and exporters to help them meet “GlobalGap” standards, a private sector body that sets voluntary standards for the certification of agricultural products around the globe.
In the meeting, the group of Latin American countries (Ecuador speaking) also presented a statement raising a number of concerns about private standards, and proposing that the SPS Committee should have a permanent agenda item on monitoring the situation, and to identify if the measures “constitute restrictions to trade disguised as replies to the on-going economic crisis”.
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. Although the agreement says that governments should ensure that non-governmental entities should comply with the agreement, there is no indication of how this should be done. A number of developing countries in particular are concerned that private standards could undermine the disciplines negotiated in the SPS Agreement (see also SPS news archives)
Specific trade concerns
One of the SPS Committee's most important functions is to provide an opportunity for members to raise concerns they have about each others' SPS measures. This is the SPS Committee's bread-and-butter work in overseeing the agreement's implementation. Code numbers, eg, “no. 229”, identify particular issues and can be used to search specific trade concerns (STCs) in the WTO's SPS Information Management System.
Several issues raised were old ones, raised in previous meetings. The full list of issues on the agenda is under “P.S.” below.
Settled: Japan and Brazil withdrew two new issues after they had met their counterparts separately and settled the issues. Japan's would have been on Rep. Korea's Aquatic Animal Diseases Control Act, and Brazil's on Colombia's restrictions on gelatine imports. The US also reported it had resolved an issue with Panama on inspection of food processing plants.
Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE or “mad cow disease”): Measures related to this disease have been a long-running issue in the SPS Committee. Canada repeated beef import restrictions under Rep. Korea's amended Livestock Epidemic Prevention Act could potentially violate the SPS Agreement. Rep. Korea replied that its act complies with the SPS Agreement and urged Canada to supply information that had been requested.
The EU, supported by the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), repeated its concern that a number of countries have import restrictions that are “disproportionate and discriminatory”, and are more strict than OIE standards. This undermines the OIE's credibility. The OIE is considering amending some standards, based on science, but if countries do not apply the standards, “why bother?” the EU asked. However, the EU also praised some countries, such as Jordan, for following OIE norms.
Monitoring the use of international standards
Again, China, Japan, Rep. Korea and Indonesia objected to a proposed new regional plant health standard of the North American Plant Protection Organization (NAPPO), which would involve ships being inspected for the Asian Gypsy Moth before entering the territorial waters of NAPPO's members — Canada, Mexico and the US. The three NAPPO countries said the proposed measure is important because the pest can seriously damage trees, but comments and technical studies are still being examined.
Information from members
The US outlined the situation and the controls implemented to deal with a recent contamination of salmonella in peanut products. Australia reported on an independent review of its quarantine and biosafety arrangements, with 84 recommendations that the government has agreed in principle. The EU and Switzerland reported on their agreement to recognize each others' measures as providing equivalent levels of protection for animals and animal products.
These included: the operation of transparency provisions in the SPS Agreement, including a new “mentoring” system (countries helping others prepare notifications and comply with other transparency requirements); a draft text to improve transparency on special treatment given by developed countries to developing countries (discussed in an informal meeting but not yet agreed); reviews of the SPS Agreement (the third review is to be completed in 2009), and information from international standard-setting bodies and other observer organizations.
Chairperson: Mr Marinus Huige of the Netherlands
These dates (with informal meetings on other days in the week) could still be changed:
These are some of the trade issues or concerns discussed in the meeting or information supplied to the meeting.
Information from members