WTO News Item, 19 - 20 October 2011
Since the WTO was set up 16 years ago, governments have shared information with each other on over 10,000 measures that they have implemented on food safety and animal and plant health, the organization’s committee handling these issues learnt in its 19-20 October 2011 meeting.
WTO members meeting as the Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) Measures Committee, which deals with food safety and animal and plant health, discussed some of the latest of these notifications and other specific trade concerns. This was part of the committee’s routine task of following how well member governments’ actions meet the requirements of the SPS Agreement.
Among the concerns discussed were actual or proposed measures on honey containing pollen from genetically modified plants, cadmium residues in cocoa and chocolate, avian influenza, mad cow disease, ractopamine (a feed additive to produce lean meat) and “novel” foods.
Members praised China for the efforts it has made to live up to its SPS obligations, but expressed concerns that some information is still not available, some measures do not follow international standards or are not supported by science and that some procedures are taking too long. They were speaking in the final assessment of how China has performed since it joined the WTO in 2001, part of the “Transitional Review Mechanism” covering a range of subjects, set out in China’s membership agreement — reviews that have taken place annually in the first eight years, and once again after 10 years.
They also continued their consultations on enhancing procedures for the chairperson to help broker solutions to problems they have with each other’s measures, following up on further work agreed in the third review of the agreement’s implementation, and on private and commercial standards.
And they discussed the selection and role of observer organizations as the number asking to become observers rises.
Many but not all of the specific concerns raised in the meeting were in response to information that member governments have notified each other through the WTO on their SPS measures.
By the end of September this year, 10,366 regular and emergency measures had been notified since 1 January 1995 when the WTO was set up, with another 2,980 additions, alterations or corrections to existing notifications, the committee learnt.
Members also submit information on translations of notified measures available in other WTO languages, and more recently when they have recognized others’ SPS measures as being equivalent to their own.
Overall, the volume is rising. The latest update of the WTO Secretariat report on notifications (G/SPS/GEN/804/Rev.4) says 2010 saw the largest number of notifications in a single year so far, at 1,436.
The US submitted over a quarter of the total of regular notifications since 1995 (2,192), followed by Brazil (775), China (592) and Canada (567). Top notifiers of emergency measures were Albania (125), the Philippines (114), New Zealand (102) and the US (84).
Developing countries (including least-developed countries) now submit more notifications than developed countries — they broke through the 50% share in 2008 and now contribute about two thirds of notifications each year.
The WTO Secretariat has introduced a system for countries to submit the information online, which should increase the quantity, quality and speed of notification.
Some of the specific trade concerns
GM pollen in honey.
The European Court of justice recently ruled that pollen found in honey should be considered an “ingredient” rather than a natural constituent. This means that pollen from genetically modified (GM) plants would have to be approved as ingredients for honey sold in the EU.
Argentina, Uruguay, Mexico, Brazil, Canada, Paraguay and the US objected to this because it has created uncertainty and caused EU imports to fall. They observed that the Codex Alimentarius’s international standard does not treat pollen as an ingredient and they urged the EU to act to remove the trade obstacle. The US added that the pollen in the court case was from a genetically modified variety (MON810) that is approved in the EU.
The EU said it is striving to cause the least disruption to trade. The ruling applies to EU honey as well as imports, it said. It expects an opinion by the end of October on the safety of MON810 pollen (which is not approved yet), and is considering the best approach more generally, including through consultations. But it added that if honey contains GM pollen approved elsewhere but not approved in the EU, then the honey cannot be imported into the EU.
Cadmium in cocoa.
Ecuador said a proposed EU regulation on cadmium residues in cocoa could set maximum residue levels that are too low to achieve, particularly in countries with volcanic soils. Support came from Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Peru, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela. The EU said it is still considering a revised limit for chocolate as well as cocoa, has not decided on a residue limit yet, and is working with the cocoa and chocolate producers to ensure the limit will be “as lows as reasonably achievable” (ALARA). It said it was pleased to hear Ecuador is taking steps to minimize the residues in cocoa beans.
Some issues raised in previous meetings
The US, Canada, Costa Rica, Ecuador and Peru continue to object to Chinese Taipei’s ban on meat from animals fed with ractopamine, a beta-agonist drug mixed with feed that boosts growth and promotes leanness in pigs and cattle. Chinese Taipei said it had already explained its position in the last meeting.
India’s measures against bird flu (avian influenza)
The US and EU continued call for India to scrap the import restrictions — which have been in place for several years — on the grounds that the risk assessment that India gave to them is scientifically inadequate, a view they said the World Animal Health Organization (OIE) shares.
This issue has been discussed since 2004 but more regularly since 2007. The US and EU say neither science nor international standards justify such measures as banning pork imports since pigs do not transmit the virus. India says the paper it gave to the two was a draft describing a risk assessment that has not yet been completed. It has argued that some scientific research shows the virus can be carried by pigs, and that it needs a strong defence for its poor farmers.
US Food Safety Modernization Act
China, India Turkey and Costa Rica continued to express concerns about the new act, India arguing that it does not meet certain principles of the SPS Agreement (“equivalence” and “harmonization”). But they appreciated the US’s efforts to explain the act and to provide technical assistance, some calling for more, particularly through regional sessions. The US said it is happy to discuss providing more assistance or information and to discuss some aspects of how the law is to be implemented.
EU Regulation on Novel Foods
Peru, Colombia, Paraguay, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Brazil, Chile and Mexico continued to be concerned about the treatment of their indigenous and traditional products which are treated as “new” in the EU because they have no significant history of consumption in that market. The EU said common ground on a new regulation has not been found and it is now considering how to achieve this so that novel foods can have quicker access to its market.
China’s final review
This last review of how China has implemented the SPS Agreement since it joined the WTO heard comments and questions from the EU (document G/SPS/W/262), US, Mexico and Japan. It was part of the “Transitional Review Mechanism” covering a range of WTO subjects, set out in China’s 2001 membership agreement, requiring annual reviews for the first eight years and one more after 10 years.
Speakers observed the large increase in China’s agricultural trade since it joined and praised China for its efforts to comply with the SPS Agreement. But they also pointed to some problems they face in particular areas such as food additives, and measures to deal with mad cow disease (BSE) and avian influenza.
More broadly, they said some of the laws and rules are untransparent because translations into WTO languages are unavailable, some are not based on international standards or science, some measures restricting trade take too long to remove, and some measures apply to imports but not domestic products. (Similar comments are heard frequently in the regular exchanges between members discussing specific trade concerns.)
China said it is a developing country and has had to overcome considerable obstacles in order to meet its obligations. It is ready and willing to continue to discuss members’ concerns in the SPS Committee’s regular work and bilaterally, it said.
China is the third largest notifier of SPS measures among WTO members, with 619 regular and emergency measures notified since it joined in 2001 (see Secretariat report G/SPS/GEN/804/Rev.4). (see earlier news stories and official documents).
A large number of African members called for the African Union to be accepted as an observer in the committee, not least because it is already an observer in the “three sisters” — Codex Alimentarius, World Animal Health Organization (OIE), International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC) — whose international standards are recognized by the SPS Agreement.
The call also follows recent agreement to accept three African regional organizations as observers in the SPS Committee.
The US, EU, Canada and New Zealand said this should wait until members have had an opportunity to consider guidelines on the role of observer organizations and on accepting new observers. This was partly a response to requests from 11 organizations to be added to the present list of 10 permanent observer organizations and 11 invited meeting by meeting (see Secretariat note G/SPS/GEN/1112, details of applicants to be observers).
It also followed a discussion on whether an observer organization can express an opinion on whether an individual WTO member is meeting the organization’s standards, rather than advising the committee more generally about the standards.
Meanwhile, the IPPC, which deals with plant health, reported that its financial future is slightly more stable since it has received some funding. But some members urged other members and the FAO, which hosts the IPPC, to provide more funds for the IPPC’s work, which they described as vital for trade.
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, as in the draft agenda (some other items were added in the meeting). A database of trade concerns raised is in the WTO’s SPS Information Management System, http://spsims.wto.org.
Information from …
Members (pest or disease status)
Specific trade concerns (G/SPS/GEN/204/Rev.11)
Issues previously raised
(the numbers after each topic can be used to search for the cases in http://spsims.wto.org/)
Consideration of specific notifications received
Information on resolution of issues