WTO News Item, 21-22 March 2013
Fraud involving horsemeat in Europe, continuing concern about Indonesia’s port closure, Japanese pesticide limits for sesame, and perennial concerns related to mad cow disease were among the many issues discussed by the WTO committee dealing with food safety and animal and plant health, 21–22 March 2013.
The Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) Measures Committee — which comprises all WTO members and deals with an area having an increasing impact on trade — also continued to struggle to agree on a working definition of private standards.
Progress was reported on consultations on making it easier for countries to use the chairperson’s services to mediate on problems members have about each other’s measures with the aim of avoiding the need to bring legal disputes against each other. This will be discussed again at the next meeting in June.
Members heard about preliminary findings from World Bank research suggesting least developed countries might find their exports constrained as emerging economies set higher standards. And they learnt that the number of officials and others receiving WTO training in SPS issues now exceeds 10,000.
Information and concerns.
Five members shared information on latest developments in their countries. The EU reported on horsemeat found in various meat products, which it described as labelling fraud and not a food safety issue. It outlined how the fraud was detected, the measures taken to prevent future fraud, and said the swift and decisive action taken showed the strength of its food safety system.
Japan reported that radiation from the nuclear accident in March 2011 has improved significantly and is well below international guidelines. Exported food is safe but some countries still ban imports or set conditions that are unnecessarily strict, Japan said.
Brazil reported on its single case of mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy, BSE), which it said was a rare and spontaneous instance with no identifiable infection from feed or any other source (G/SPS/GEN/1232). Brazil stressed that it was still considered to be a negligible risk for BSE and asked countries to remove all restrictions on its exports due to that BSE case.
Australia and the US reported on changes to their SPS regimes.
On specific issues, the committee discussed four new concerns, 11 that had previously been raised, and two measures members have notified to the WTO.
These covered: materials added to plastics in food and drink containers; various fruits; pine and other confer trees; seed potatoes; shrimps; tequila; pesticides; salmon; “novel foods”; import restrictions caused by port closure; sesame; offal; residues of a veterinary medicine; and seeds treated with substances that could endanger bees. (Some details below.)
The WTO’s World Trade Report 2012 has identified SPS measures among non-tariff barriers that are having an increasing impact on trade.
The SPS Committee’s main task is to monitor how countries are implementing food safety and animal and plant health measures under the WTO Agreement, and to discuss issues arising from that, including the work of recognized international standards-setting bodies. Its deliberations range from comments on specific measures to broader principles.
Specific trade concerns
The concerns arousing the most comment were:
Japan’s maximum residue levels applied to sesame. (see spsims.wto.org specific trade concern 321). Paraguay — supported by Indonesia, Mexico, Ecuador, India and Argentina — complained that the 0.01 parts per million (ppm) pesticide limit for sesame is unjustified, and inconsistent with the 0.05ppm set for other products.
Japan said it is still waiting for scientific data from exporting countries in order to review the limit. Paraguay countered that it is up to Japan to provide the scientific evidence to support the limit and India said limits should not be set arbitrarily.
Private sector standards
Chairperson Maria Albarece of the Philippines reported that consultations before the meeting looked at proposed definitions for private sector standards, the first of five agreed actions, which would define the scope of the deliberations on these standards.
She said the discussions of compromise definitions were constructive but no consensus has emerged and she invited members to submit written proposals, which would be discussed at the next meeting in June.
Belize — supported by Brazil, Ecuador, Dominican Rep, El Salvador, Cuba, Argentina, Uruguay and Chile — complained about the lack of progress and what it described as some members’ objection to “interfere with market requirements”.
Leaving these requirements to the private sector would mean member governments are delegating their responsibility under the SPS Agreement, to ensure SPS measures do not restrict trade unnecessarily, Belize said.
The EU said it recognizes the interest in the subject, but believes private standards should be handled in other forums. However, members have agreed to a work programme and the first topic, the definition, is needed in order to set the parameters for the discussion, the EU said.
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.
A number of developing countries in particular are concerned that private standards — which apply for example in supermarket chains — could undermine the disciplines negotiated in the SPS Agreement. Some delegations also argue that by meeting private standards, exporters can improve their products’ marketability.
BRICs’ standards and least developed countries
The finding that least developed countries’ exports are being constrained by emerging economies’ higher standards is in a World Bank paper circulated for the meeting (G/SPS/GEN/1228).
The Bank said it has started to examine the impact of SPS standards on low income countries using a newly constructed Standards Restrictiveness Database.
“Broadly, the question we seek to answer through this research is: What is the impact of standards (particularly ‘maximum residue levels’ (MRLs) of pesticides) on agricultural exports of developing countries?” the paper says.
The first study on the subject focuses on the impact of standards among the BRICs (Brazil, India and China) on least developed countries’ agricultural exports.
“Thus far we find that indeed, more standards leads to fewer imports overall,” the paper says. “These initial results suggest, as hypothesized, that LDCs [least developed countries] risk losing out as incomes in BRICs increase and standards restrictiveness follows suit.”
But the World Bank adds that this is still work in progress.
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 or information supplied by members.
Information from members
Specific trade concerns
Issues previously raised
Consideration of specific notifications received