Food, animal and plant products: how safe is safe?
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Problem: How do you ensure that your country’s consumers are being supplied with food that is safe to eat
— “safe” by the standards you consider appropriate? And at the same time, how can you ensure that strict health and safety regulations are not being used as an excuse for protecting domestic producers?
A separate agreement on food safety and animal and plant health standards (the Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures Agreement or
SPS) sets out the basic rules.
It allows countries to set their own standards. But it also says regulations must be based on science. They should be applied only to the extent necessary to protect human, animal or plant life or health. And they should not arbitrarily or unjustifiably discriminate between countries where identical or similar conditions prevail.
Member countries are encouraged to use international standards, guidelines and recommendations where they exist.
When they do, they are unlikely to be challenged legally in a WTO dispute. However, members may use measures which result in higher standards if there is scientific justification. They can also set higher standards based on appropriate assessment of risks so long as the approach is consistent, not arbitrary. And they can to some extent apply the “precautionary principle”, a kind of “safety first” approach to deal with scientific uncertainty. Article 5.7 of the SPS Agreement allows temporary “precautionary” measures.
The agreement still allows countries to use different standards and different methods of inspecting products. So how can an exporting country be sure the practices it applies to its products are acceptable in an importing country? If an exporting country can demonstrate that the measures it applies to its exports achieve the same level of health protection as in the importing country, then the importing country is expected to accept the exporting country’s standards and methods.
The agreement includes provisions on control,
inspection and approval procedures. Governments must provide advance
notice of new or changed sanitary and phytosanitary regulations, and
establish a national enquiry point to provide information. The agreement
complements that on technical barriers to trade.
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Technical regulations and standards are important, but they vary from country to country. Having too many different standards makes life difficult for producers and exporters. If the standards are set arbitrarily, they could be used as an excuse for protectionism. Standards can become obstacles to trade.
But they are also necessary for a range of reasons, from environmental
protection, safety, national security to consumer information. And they can help
trade. Therefore the same basic question arises again: how to ensure that
standards are genuinely useful, and not arbitrary or an excuse for
The Technical Barriers to Trade Agreement (TBT) tries to ensure that regulations, standards, testing and certification procedures do not create unnecessary obstacles.
However, the agreement also recognizes
countries’ rights to adopt the standards they consider appropriate — for
example, for human, animal or plant life or health, for the protection of the
environment or to meet other consumer interests. Moreover, members are not
prevented from taking measures necessary to ensure their standards are met. But
that is counterbalanced with disciplines. A myriad of regulations can be a
nightmare for manufacturers and exporters. Life can be simpler if governments
apply international standards, and the agreement encourages them to do so In any
case, whatever regulations they use should not discriminate.
The agreement also sets out a code of
good practice for both governments and non-governmental or industry bodies to
prepare, adopt and apply voluntary standards. Over 200 standards-setting bodies
apply the code.
The agreement says the procedures used to decide whether a product conforms with
revelant standards have to be fair and equitable. It discourages any methods that would give domestically produced goods an unfair advantage.
The agreement also encourages countries to recognize each other’s procedures for
assessing whether a product conforms. Without recognition, products might have
to be tested twice, first by the exporting country and then by the importing
Manufacturers and exporters need to know
what the latest standards are in their prospective markets. To help ensure that
this information is made available conveniently, all WTO member governments are
required to establish national enquiry points and to keep each other informed
through the WTO — around 900 new or changed regulations are notified each year.
The Technical Barriers to Trade Committee is the major clearing house for
members to share the information and the major forum to discuss concerns about
the regulations and their implementation.
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