WTO News Item, 20 and 21 October 2010
New standards having a major impact on international trade in goods could be agreed in up to three years, the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC) told the 20—21 October 2010 meeting of the WTO committee dealing with food safety and animal and plant health. But the agency also cautioned that its standards-setting programme is among cuts it faces because of a shortage of funds.
Work is underway on standards for “minimizing pest movement by sea containers and conveyances in international trade”, and is at an earlier stage on similar standards for air containers and aircraft, the IPPC told the WTO’s Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) Measures Committee.
Australia, the EU and US supported the IPPC’s call for extra funding as it faces a projected budget deficit of $1.2m in 2011 and urged delegations to raise the issue with relevant agencies in their countries.
Delegations are now close to agreeing on some actions on standards set by the private sector — mainly on defining private standards and sharing information — but continue to differ on actions beyond that. They also continue to differ on proposals on how to set up a system that would encourage members to make more use of mediation by the chairperson to resolve some of their differences.
And four new specific trade concerns, among the fewest in recent meetings, were raised as part of the committee’s main task of overseeing the SPS Agreement’s implementation, with the EU presenting a list of 14 concerns it considers to have been resolved.
International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC)
The IPPC comes under the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and is one of three standards-setting bodies (“three sisters”) recognized explicitly by the WTO’s SPS Agreement. It is an observer in the SPS Committee and was introducing the latest report of its recent activities (document G/SPS/GEN/1049).
The report describes the financial situation as “extremely drastic” and says the IPPC has “no alternative but to cut the IPPC standard-setting programme, in addition to the information exchange and capacity development programmes, to the absolute minimum in 2011”. (The IPPC said the figure printed in the report is an error — the true projected deficit for 2011 is $1.2m.)
The IPPC said the standard on pests in sea containers and conveyances in international trade might be completed in two to three years. A number of other standards are also in the pipeline.
The IPPC also reported the first time countries have used its non-binding dispute settlement system. South Africa confirmed that it has raised questions related to citrus exports to the EU.
Ad hoc mediation
Members still differ on how a mediation system might be set up in SPS and whether this would conflict with similar proposals currently being negotiated for all areas of non-tariff barriers in the non-agricultural market access negotiations (NAMA) in the Doha Round.
Some members want more information on how the proposed SPS system would work and about previous experience of mediation.
The chairperson therefore asked delegations to submit comments on the latest draft — compiled by the Secretariat from previous discussions — and other information, so that a new draft and the information could be discussed when the committee meets next in March 2011.
During informal consultations before the committee met formally, two new papers were introduced. An unofficial one, from India, Norway, the Philippines and Switzerland asked questions about how the proposed SPS system would work how it would relate to the NAMA proposal, and for the experiences of countries that had already used mediation by the chairperson. Although the content of previous mediations is confidential, Canada and the US said they would describe their experiences.
Brazil (G/SPS/GEN/1052) compared four proposed or existing methods of resolving differences over specific trade concerns.
One of the purposes of ad hoc mediation is to avoid differences turning into complicated and sometimes expensive legal disputes. The SPS Agreement already includes provisions for the chairperson to mediate in consultations and this was used occasionally in the WTO’s early years.
Argentina, the US and others would like to see new SPS guidelines for applying Art.12.2 of the SPS Agreement. India, Switzerland are concerned about a possible clash with the NAMA system, which can be found in the negotiating group’s chairperson’s December 2008 draft “modalities” text, in part 1 of Annex 5. If agreed, it would be used for non-tariff barriers (including SPS measures) across a range of WTO topics.
Private sector standards
The chairperson reported on another session of consultations among about 30 members in an ad hoc working group on the eve of the committee’s meeting. He said the group has almost reached consensus on six out of 12 “actions” in a Secretariat document compiling proposed ideas. These will be modified and submitted for the committee to approve at the next meeting in March, when the group’s mandate will end, he said.
The six actions close to being accepted deal with defining private standards, sharing information, and cooperation between the WTO’s SPS Committee and other organizations. The remaining six include further work in the WTO such as developing guidelines and codes of conduct and clarifying governments’ legal obligations under the SPS Agreement.
El Salvador, India, Cuba, Senegal, Ecuador, Venezuela, Guinea, Morocco, Chile, Mali, Brazil, Uruguay, Belize, Peru, Dominican Republic, Colombia, Mexico and South Africa repeated their concerns about private standards. New Zealand questioned whether the SPS Committee is the best place to discuss this.
The World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) and Codex Alimentarius, which deals with food safety, said private standards should be used to support official standards that protect health, not as a marketing tool.
Since the SPS 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.” It does not say 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.
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.
Several issues raised were old ones, raised in previous meetings, in some cases with similar exchanges. 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.
The EU’s maximum residues levels for pesticides.
In this new issue, India complained that the EU’s pesticide residue levels are too strict, are inconsistent between products (the limit is lower on rice than some other products, for example), are designed to “insulate the EU’s domestic industry from foreign competition” as well as to protect consumers and do not comply with the SPS Agreement. Also concerned were Thailand, Brazil and Pakistan. The EU said its maximum residue levels are designed to protect consumers by ensuring food is safe, that it had notified its intention to set the levels several time since 2003 with no reactions from exporters, and that import tolerances allowing higher levels can be discussed.
Venezuelan suspension of inspection and certification (no. 290)
Colombia and Venezuela reported that they are making progress in resolving the problem.
Responding to a general request to members from the chairperson at the last meeting, the EU listed 14 issues that it had previously raised as trade concerns but “are no longer considered to be barriers to trade”. The EU “congratulates our trading partners on the cooperation on these issues” (document G/SPS/GEN/1051).
This was the first time a member has systematically gone through all the specific trade concerns raised in the committee to identify which ones it considers to be settled. The chairperson urged other members to do the same. (A database of trade concerns raised is in the WTO’s SPS Information Management System, http://spsims.wto.org)
These dates (with informal meetings on other days in the week) could still be changed: