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Symposium on issues confronting the world trading system
summary reports by the moderators

6 and 7 July, World Trade Organization, Geneva, Switzerland  

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Saturday, 7 July

Session I: Food Safety and the SPS Agreement

Moderator: Kazuaki Miyagishima — Associate Professor, School of Medicine, Kyoto University

To begin the working session on the SPS Agreement and Food Safety, I introduced the topic of food safety, noting that all diseases are products of interaction between humans and the environment. Human perception of risks is an important consideration, since in many societies people are more afraid of food risks than other incidents which actually kill many more people, such as automobile accidents. Humans also perceive risks differently if they are from hereditary or non-hereditary diseases, from voluntary or forced risks, and from pharmaceuticals versus food-borne risks. There is a marked tendency to focus on novel risks, although traditional products may be at least as dangerous. In general, the public accepts some foods that scientists do not consider to be safe, but do not accept all foods that scientists know to be safe. Therefore, from a public health point of view, there is a gap to be filled between perceived risks and real risks as well as between accepted and unaccepted risks.

Our first presenter, Dr. Dominique Taeymans of CIAA, addressed the issue of precaution. He recalled that precaution was first considered in the environmental field, where the Rio Declaration established the principle that when faced with threat of serious or irreversible damage, a lack of science should not prevent the taking of precautionary actions. The SPS Agreement extends precaution to the food safety area. Article 2.2 of the SPS Agreement requires that governments base their food safety measures on scientific evidence, which, in terms of the Codex Alimentarius, means the full use of risk assessment results. However, the SPS Agreement allows governments to take provisional measures while they seek additional information within a reasonable period of time. So Dr. Taeymans argued that the precautionary approach should be structured by risk analysis, and that it was a risk management element, not to be confused with the scientific caution used in risk assessment. Precaution is not welcome by economic operators because it has the potential to disrupt trade, and can be used as a disguised trade barrier. Precautionary measures should therefore be exceptional, provisional, proportional, non-discriminatory, consistent, based on cost/benefit analysis, should assign the burden of proof, and involve all stockholders. Discussion of precaution is taking place in the FAO/WHO Codex Alimentarius, which may develop guidelines in this area. Risk analysis should remain the rule, precautionary measures the exception.

Our second presenter, Dr. Groth from Consumer Union, USA, noted that the debate about GMOs is a multi-dimensional debate, including ethical, trade and economic issues. With regard to human health risks, the one which attracted primary consideration is allergenicity; there is also a possibility of modifying the natural toxicity of plants. Ecological risks are probably more likely and harder to assess. On the other hand, benefits for human health will probably only be seen in the future; they might include nutritional improvements, quality improvements, the potential to increase production and to provide human vaccines. Regarding ecological benefits, there is the possibility of reduced use of inputs such as pesticides and fertilizers, which might make it possible to use less land or poorer land to produce more food. Dr. Groth raised the question of distribution – who gets the benefits and who faces the risks – which is a major issue both within society and among societies. The most difficult part of debate was not over facts but values – ethical, religious, etc. Do the benefits justify the risk? Dr. Groth closed by noting that risk assessment was essential, but a better decision paradigm was needed to factor in other issues, including precaution. Safety assessments by regulatory bodies could not resolve the much broader debate, and a forum is needed to discuss these broader issues.

The third presenter, Dr. Coulibaly Fanny from Côte d'Ivoire, discussed developing country concerns. Before 1999, many Developing countries had no knowledge at a technical level of the SPS Agreement. Since 1999, there had been some workshops and training, not always well coordinated. Developing countries remained concerned about the absence of new market access, insufficient modernization of laws and institutions, non use of risk analysis, lack of knowledge and involvement with standard-setting organizations, and insufficient technical assistance. Many countries had established national committees to cope with these questions, but not always effective or active. Dr. Coulibaly noted that many Developing countries were facing problems related to a reluctance to reform legislations and review procedures for inspection. She stressed the need for regional work and development. The process was slow and there was a need to inform the political level of the importance and implications of the SPS Agreement. On the other hand, perhaps the SPS Agreement needed to be revised to make more mandatory the technical assistance and special and differential treatment provisions. Large and small producers as well as consumers in developing countries needed to be informed and trained to allow them to participate and make their needs heard.

In discussing the use of precaution, one of the participants noted that the SPS Agreement and other instruments, such as the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, differed with respect to the burden of proof. The SPS Agreement assigned the responsibility primarily to the importing country, whereas under the Cartagena Protocol the exporter had the burden of demonstrating the safety of the new organism. The speaker thought this latter approach was more appropriate. However, another speaker noted that shifting the burden of proof could have negative implications for trade, as the exporter would be expected to prove 100% safety. Another speaker stressed the need for internationally agreed procedures on how to deal with unknown risks, and welcomed the decision by the Codex Alimentarius Commission to develop guidelines for governments in this respect. Such international guidelines could help avoid unjustified trade restrictions.

Responding to the various comments made, Dr. Groth noted that there was never enough science, and almost any food safety decision involved some precaution. The underlying decision was not scientific, but a decision of how much risk a country wanted to accept, and how much precaution to be applied. He also noted a need to develop commonly agreed terminology to avoid confusion. Dr. Coulibaly observed that there was a difference in the principle as discussed and how it was actually applied in trade. She argued that the precautionary principle should be used responsibly, especially when it affected trade with developing countries.

Regarding the issue of GMOs, one speaker stressed the need for labelling to ensure consumers right to choose. Another noted that risk assessments of GMOs in most countries was not a scientific process but a political process and that the use of confusing terms caused further problems. He noted that in 15 years of risk assessments on GMOs, he had never seen any risks from GMO products that did not occur with conventional hybrids. He suggested that developing countries had not been given the chance to test the technology and to evaluate potential benefits of existing GM products. Developing countries also needed to now to address issues of ethical concerns regarding GM foods before it becomes a major problem in their own countries. WTO should show public leadership in providing public facts and figures about GMs – otherwise the voices of developing countries are never heard.

Dr. Groth indicated that many of the costs of research were eventually passed on to consumers in product prices, and that labelling costs varied considerably according to how they were done. Dr. Taeymans referred to on-going discussions on traceability, and concerns that this could have significant costs, which would again be passed on to consumers. Dr. Coulibaly observed that one effect of the globalization of information was that as soon as a food safety crisis occurred in Europe or elsewhere, consumers in developing countries immediately demanded action from their governments, for example on dioxin, BSE, GMOs, etc. Often this occurred at the cost of diverting attention from more important concerns. She stressed the need for discussions with consumers, industry, producers, and governments to provide first information and facts, and then decide on appropriate policies.

In addressing the concerns of developing countries, one speaker stressed the problem of the scarce participation of developing countries in the relevant standard-setting bodies. Their lack of participation meant that they had not been able to block the establishment of standards at levels which were higher than needed to protect health and designed instead to protect domestic industries from competition. Another speaker suggested that, given the high costs for developing countries of setting up structures and institutions to implement the SPS Agreement, their implementation should be made conditional upon technical and financial assistance being made available to them. One speaker was concerned that the SPS Agreement, had led to lower levels of food safety. Since developing countries had not received sufficient technical assistance to increase food safety, they argued in Codex for lower standards they could meet. He suggested that there was a need for an international agreement on food safety, under the auspices of the WHO.

Dr. Coulibaly drew attention to the new FAO fund to assist developing country participation, but noted that developing countries also had to make efforts internally, for example by creating effective national Codex committees. This was, however, a costly process for countries with other urgent resource priorities. She reiterated her suggestion that the technical assistance and special and differential provisions of the SPS Agreement should be made more binding. Dr. Groth observed the growing participation of developing countries in Codex, but not yet effectively in Codex committees where the technical and scientific expertise was crucial. It was also noted that FAO and WHO are considering the establishment of trust funds to support developing country participation. Other international instruments are also being approached to explore ways to improve capacities of developing countries.

In summary, the working session noted that the issues of precaution and GMOs stand at the crossroads of different areas such as SPS for food safety; TBT for food labelling, as well as biodiversity, animal welfare, etc. This situation clearly indicated the need to organize more open for a at all levels so that the public is well-informed and government actions are taken with full participation of all interested parties.


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