Dr David Jukes, The University of Reading, UK

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Food Law News - FAO / WHO / WTO / Codex - 2014

WTO News item, 18 and 19 June 2014

WTO - TBT Committee Meeting: Healthy food and drink feature, but good practices deal eludes standards committee

To see the original news item (containing numerous links and more details of the particular trade concerns), see:

Almost one third of the 46 specific trade concerns raised were about health protection, including healthy food and drink, and labelling, when WTO members met as the Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT) Committee on 18–19 June 2014.

The committee — which deals with ensuring technical standards and other requirements meet their objectives without unnecessarily disrupting trade — was also on the brink of agreeing good practices for regulations. Although the main substance is close to being agreed, differences emerged on proposed new wording designed to ensure that the text would not have a bearing in legal disputes.

Members also shared their experiences in notifying information to the WTO, an essential part of implementing the TBT Agreement, and agreed on ways to make notifications more consistent when they involve additions, corrections, revisions and other changes: document G/TBT/35 (pdf).

Some details

Specific trade concerns: health and labelling gaining focus

Health protection and labelling, particularly for food and drink, are emerging as a dominant theme in many of the “specific trade concerns” that members raise in the committee. They highlight the balance governments try to strike between trade and health —reducing obesity, discouraging unhealthy eating and alcohol abuse, protecting children, for example, by regulation or by helping consumers to be better informed so they can choose for themselves.

These specific concerns are bread-and-butter agenda items in TBT Committee meetings, reflecting how the TBT Agreement is being implemented. Members use them as a means of airing the problems their producers and traders face — or could face — as a result of importing countries’ standards, technical regulations and labelling requirements. A near-record 46 concerns were raised in this meeting, 14 of them new, others recurring from previous meetings.

In this meeting, concerns were raised about measures on food and drink proposed or introduced in Russia (3), Thailand, the EU (2), Ecuador (5), Indonesia (2), India, Chile, Peru, Egypt. The countries expressing concerns about these were: Ukraine, Canada, the EU, Mexico, New Zealand, Indonesia, Malaysia, the US, Rep. Korea, Japan, Australia, Argentina, Switzerland, Brazil, Guatemala, Norway and Turkey.

Among other regulations related to health were those for medical equipment in China and Brazil (new regulations or certification or enforcement laws, raised by Canada, the EU India and the US), cosmetics in China and India, health warnings and other labelling requirements for alcoholic drinks in Thailand and Russia, and the long-running debate about health warnings and plain packaging for tobacco, this time about proposed new laws in Ireland and Moldova.

Questions in common about health regulations: Members questioning each other’s policies stressed that they agree with the need to protect health, and to help consumers make informed choices. However, they questioned whether the best means of achieving these objectives have been chosen and whether they would unnecessarily obstruct trade. For example:

Whether it is necessary labels that are specific for a country (including those in the local language) to be printed on the product when manufactured, or whether stickers can be attached at customs warehouses in the importing country, which is easier for suppliers

Whether some types of health warnings on food (for example on sugar, salt and unsaturated fat contents) are too alarmist, and whether they are based on scientific evidence or recognized international standards

Whether prohibiting the use images of music, movie and sport celebrities in labels of alcoholic drinks is excessive

Whether countries proposing new measures are giving their trading partners enough time to submit comments before the measures take effect

Other specific trade concerns:  Russia has recently blocked Ukrainian dairy products, which Ukraine said was “sudden and unreasonable” and should be lifted. Russia replied that the ban was necessary because of inconsistencies between labels and actual fat and liquid contents Russia said the ban applies to products from only five companies, while more than twenty companies continue to sell normally in Russia.

Also raised were standards, certification and other regulations on lithium ion batteries for portable electronic equipment, stainless steel, formaldehyde for wood products, toys, chemicals, telecommunications, security products for information, electronics and information technology goods, electrical equipment, ceramics, genetically modified crops and steel cutlery. The full list is here.

Good practices in regulation: still not quite there

Members are close to agreeing on a voluntary list of principles and steps to be taken in developing and applying regulations — known as “good regulatory practice”. However, differences emerged over a last-minute proposal designed to ensure that the text would not have a bearing on legal disputes.

The list is the result of a review of the TBT Agreement in 2012 and discussions on particular themes resulting from that review. It seeks to provide some examples of best practices for governments to consider when setting, adopting and applying product requirements, such as for labelling and certification, so that measures avoid disrupting trade unnecessarily.

The out-going chairperson, Mr Jingo Kikukawa of Japan, who held consultations immediately before the meeting reminded members that he had intended to complete the task in this session (document G/TBT/GEN/168). The failure to agree means “both developed and developing members have missed the opportunity to discuss other important issues [in the draft text]. These include how to put into practice the special treatment for developing countries envisaged in the draft,” he warned.

 “This is a pity for the committee, and I personally regret this missed opportunity,” he said. A number of delegations also said they were disappointed.

The substance of the draft is close to being agreed. But a difference emerged this week about whether a detailed disclaimer is needed to ensure countries are shielded from legal challenge in the WTO’s dispute settlement system.

China, supported by a few members, argued that a tightly-written disclaimer is needed. Others, including the EU, US, Rep. Korea, Mexico and Canada, felt that this would be excessive because the terms used in the text are already sufficient, such as “voluntary” and “non-exhaustive” (“non-exhaustive” means the list does not need to be considered as complete). The draft’s title is “Non-Exhaustive List of Voluntary Mechanisms and Related Principles of Good Regulatory Practice”.

A number of members supported continued consultations, which the new chairperson, Filipe Ramalheira of Portugal, will undertake in the coming weeks.

Theme: ever-improving information for trading

Information is a vital part of dealing with technical barriers to trade, and the latest developments in providing and obtaining information were aired in an informal session on 17 June(document G/TBT/GEN/167), the day before the formal meeting.

This latest in a series of “thematic” discussions included a presentation by Kenya on its new “NotifyKenyaTBT” website for its companies, officials and other “stakeholders” to keep track of standards and regulations in place or in the pipeline around the world. The Kenyan website uses TBT notifications from the WTO’s website, with the added value of summaries and other information.

Innovations of this kind are possible through the increased use of the Internet and online databases. The WTO itself has improved its TBT Information Management System database with new hyperlinks allowing users to open official documents directly. It also has a new database on non-tariff barriers such as TBT and Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) measures, part of the Integrated Trade Intelligence Portal (I-TIP,, the meeting was told. Several members said they find email alerts particularly useful: these are sent out automatically when notifications covering specific products or countries are published.

Other speakers described how they disseminate information on their own standards, how they work with the private sector and how they submit their notifications online, another recent development in the WTO, which so far only 18 members have used.

Two regional groups — the Gulf Cooperation Council’s Standardization Organization and the Andean Community’s Integration System — described how they work on common standards across their groups and how these are notified to the WTO.

The full programme is in document JOB/TBT/104/Rev.1.

 “Thematic” discussions were introduced in the TBT Committee after the agreement’s implementation was reviewed in 2012 in order to focus on issues that commonly arise in the more fragmented specific trade concerns.

Chairperson: Filipe Ramalheira of Portugal, taking over from Jingo Kikukawa of Japan at the start of the meeting

Next meeting: (Could be changed) - 5–6 November 2014

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