and phytosanitary measures deal with food safety and animal and plant
health standards. The WTO does not set the standards. The WTO’s SPS
Agreement encourages member countries to use standards set by
international organizations (see box), but it also allows countries to
set their own standards.
SPS Agreement identifies three standard-setting organizations:
the FAO-WHO Codex Alimentarius Commission — for food safety
the International Office for Epizootics — for animal health
the FAO’s Secretariat of the International Plant Protection Convention
— for plant health
also says governments can agree to refer to any other international
organizations or agreements whose membership is open to all WTO members.
standards can be higher than the internationally agreed ones, but the
agreement says they should be based on scientific evidence, should not
discriminate between countries, and should not be a disguised
restriction to trade.
provisions strike a balance between two equally important objectives:
helping governments protect consumers, and animal and plant health
against known dangers and potential hazards; and avoiding the use of
health and safety regulations as protectionism in disguise.
following issues are among those raised in the lead up to the 2001
Ministerial Conference in Doha. Most were first raised in the
preparations for the Seattle Ministerial Conference in 1999. They come
under the heading of “implementation [of the existing Uruguay
At the time of writing, it is uncertain whether these issues will lead
to negotiations to amend the SPS Agreement itself. So far, no country
has formally asked to reopen the agreement. Some countries have said
some issues in the agreement need to be clarified. This could be dealt
with, for instance by decisions or declarations from the Ministerial
Conference or General Council.
measures reduce risks to consumers, animals or plants to acceptable
levels. Different measures could be equivalent in providing the same
level of health protection against risks of disease or contamination.
Article 4 of the SPS Agreement requires governments — under
certain conditions — to recognize other governments’ equivalent
measures. The main question is how to establish that an exporting
country’s measures are equivalent to those used in the importing
the WTO, developing countries in particular say developed countries
are not doing enough to accept that actions they are taking on
exported products — in particular inspection and certification
procedures — are equivalent to the importing developed countries’
requirements even when the measures are different, because the
measures provide the same level of health protection. In October 2000,
the General Council assigned the SPS Committee to examine these
the points raised in the committee since then are:
ways of achieving the level of protection required by the
importing country: using the same measure; accepting that
different individual measures applied to individual products can
be equivalent; or accepting that different systems (such as
national control systems) are equivalent.
formal equivalence agreements (such as recognizing each others’
veterinary measures) are necessary — some members have argued
that these are not necessary and could be too complicated to
need for transparency and information —members said they would
inform each other through the WTO when they recognize that other
members’ measures have equivalent results.
to determine and compare the “appropriate level of
protection” against a hazard or risk of a hazard such as
disease. Members have discussed the need for the importing country
to provide a clear description of the level of protection.
have been discussing a draft decision on implementing Article 4,
commitments and reasonable time periods back
number of members, developing countries in particular, say the
agreement is too vague on some points. They want to see this tightened
through a ministerial declaration or some other means. They would also
like some voluntary commitments turned into mandatory ones.
issues are the advance warning governments should provide when they
draft new regulations, and the time developing countries should be
allowed to adapt their exports to developed countries’ new
standards. The SPS Agreement uses phrases such as “a
reasonable” period of time. Some countries want this to be
clarified — specifying six months or a year, for example.
countries want the whole of Article 10, which deals with special
and differential treatment for developing countries, to be mandatory.
countries see the clarification as part of improving the
implementation of the SPS Agreement. Others say it involves
interpreting or modifying the agreement and therefore it should be
included in the new negotiations.
developing-country concerns back
addition to seeking clarification on the above issues, a number of
developing countries have expressed concern about their lack of
resources for implementing the agreement. Among the burdens are:
countries’ difficulty in participating effectively in drafting
and agreeing the relevant international standards.
new regulations in their export markets
difficulty of demonstrating sufficient scientific evidence to
justify their own measures or challenge those of others
countries are calling for both technical assistance, and more time to
and precaution back
of the SPS Agreement:
“In cases where relevant scientific evidence is
insufficient, a member may provisionally adopt sanitary or
phytosanitary measures on the basis of available pertinent
information, including that from the relevant international
organizations as well as from sanitary or phytosanitary
measures applied by other members. In such circumstances,
members shall seek to obtain the additional information
necessary for a more objective assessment of risk and review
the sanitary or phytosanitary measure accordingly within a
reasonable period of time.”
recent debate surrounding some food safety and animal health issues
— including disputes in the WTO over the use of hormones in beef
production and over regulations for salmon — raises the question of
whether the SPS Agreement’s preference for scientific evidence goes
far enough in dealing with possible risks for consumers and producers.
phrase that has emerged in the debate is the “precautionary
principle”, a kind of “safety first” approach to deal
with scientific uncertainty. To some extent, Article 5.7 of the SPS
Agreement addresses this, but some governments have said outside the
WTO that they would like the principle strengthened. The “precautionary principle” has been discussed in the SPS
Committee, but there have been no proposals so far for altering
existing agreements. It has also been raised by the EU, Japan,
Switzerland and some other countries in the current agriculture
modified organisms and biotechnology back
issues possibly span several WTO agreements, including SPS,
Agriculture, Intellectual Property (TRIPS) and Technical Barriers to
Trade (TBT). They have also been discussed in the Trade and
member governments have notified a large number of regulations related
to GMOs to the SPS Committee, most of the discussion on the subject
has been in the TBT Committee with the focus on labelling regulations.
the current agriculture negotiations, some members have called for
clarity in the WTO rules as applied to products of new technologies.