Food Law News - FAO/WHO/WTO/Codex - 2010

WTO News Item, 17-18 March 2010

SPS COMMITTEE - African observers accepted in food safety, animal-plant health committee

African countries are set to receive a boost in their ability to follow WTO work on food safety and animal and plant health — and to trade more effectively — following a 17-18 March 2010 decision to accept three regional organizations from the continent as observers in the WTO committee dealing with these issues.

The Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS) Committee also tentatively agreed on a report concluding its third review of how the SPS Agreement is working. The report, originally due out at the end of 2009, will be formally approved if no one raises further objections by 15 April. (When confirmed, this is expected to be document G/SPS/53.) The report reviews the past four years and identifies areas for the committee’s future work.

The committee continued to discuss private sector standards, with some members calling for a clearer interpretation of the relationship between these and the SPS Agreement — whose focus is on government standards.

And with specific trade concerns raised in the committee since 1995 now approaching 300, members continued to comment on each others’ measures, including regular topics such as avian influenza, mad cow disease (BSE) and the H1N1 virus.

Some detail

New observers

The new observers are the Economic Community for West African States (ECOWAS), Community of the Sahel-Saharan States (CEN-SAD) and Southern African Development Community (SADC). Like some other observers in the SPS Committee, they will be “ad hoc” — invited meeting by meeting, starting in June — a solution devised because the membership is still deliberating a common approach for observers across all WTO subjects.

Regional organizations that are already observers in the SPS Committee are: Organismo Internacional de Sanidad Agropecuaria (OIRSA), which works among some Latin American countries, and the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA), the Latin American Economic System (SELA) and the European Free Trade Association (EFTA).

A number of African countries said they were keen for their three organizations to become observers because the three help countries improve their ability to meet international standards and therefore to export to international markets. Some delegations find it difficult to attend all meetings and therefore the regional observers will also help them keep track of work in the WTO.

And, making these organizations observers also ties in with technical assistance they receive from some developed countries on sanitary and phytosanitary issues.

Specific concerns: overall

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.

The latest summary of specific trade concerns was presented to this meeting. It says 290 issues were raised from 1995, when the WTO was set up, until the end of last year (2009). This contrasts with 36 formal legal disputes citing the SPS Agreement out of more than 400 formal legal disputes across all subjects brought to the WTO in the same period.

Although a number of concerns raised in the SPS Committee are not potential legal disputes, the committee’s discussions are partly seen as a way of avoiding litigation.

Number of new issues raised per year

The peak year for new cases was 2002, when 42 were first raised in the committee, but the number has stayed below 20 since 2006, with 13 new issues in 2009.

The largest number of cases (40%) are about animal health and among these mad cow disease (BSE), foot and mouth disease, and avian influenza account for over two thirds of issues.

Altogether, 79 cases have solutions reported, 18 have partial solutions reported, and 193 are on-going (or are resolved without being reported to the WTO).

The report shows that developing countries have been active in raising concerns, asking or joining others in asking around half of the issues raised (146.)

The document is in four parts: G/SPS/GEN/204/Rev.10 (23 pages in English) is a statistical summary and list of issues. G/SPS/GEN/204/Rev.10/Add.1 (51 pages in English) gives details of the 29 concerns raised in 2009, 13 of them new. G/SPS/GEN/204/Rev.10/Add.2 (182 pages in English) summarizes the cases not raised in 2009 but not reported resolved. G/SPS/GEN/204/Rev.10/Add.3 (74 pages in English) summarizes the cases reported as resolved. They are available in WTO Documents Online. The data are also available in the WTO’s SPS Information Management System.

Specific concerns: discussed this time

Code numbers, eg, “no. 278”, identify particular issues and can be used to search the WTO’s SPS Information Management System.

Several issues raised were old ones, raised in previous meetings. Those summarized here tend to be issues that have generated concerns among a number of members. The full list of issues on the agenda is under “P.S.” below

Private sector standards

Consultations among about 30 members in an ad hoc working group continued earlier in the week. In the committee, Kenya said the provision in the SPS Agreement dealing with this should be clarified.

Since the agreement mainly deals with government measures, some members doubt whether the committee can act on private sector standards. The agreement’s Art.13 includes this sentence: “Members shall take such reasonable measures as may be available to them to ensure that non-governmental entities within their territories, as well as regional bodies in which relevant entities within their territories are members, comply with the relevant provisions of this Agreement.” But there is no indication of how this should be done.

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. 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)

Mediation by the chairperson

Members continued to debate whether to aim for specific rules in SPS until similar guidelines across all issues are agreed under the Doha Round negotiations on non-agricultural market access (NAMA).

The discussion arises because Argentina and the US have proposed guidelines for applying Art.12.2 of the SPS Agreement, which deals with members’ consultations to resolve issues. In particular they envisage members using the “good offices” of the chairperson to settle specific trade concerns. India and a number of other developing countries would prefer to wait for the outcome of the NAMA negotiations.

Next meetings

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.

Activities of members

Specific trade concerns


Previously raised

Consideration of specific notifications received

Information on resolution of issues

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