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SPS body mulls pests in wood crates, studies ‘equivalence’

A draft EU emergency measure against pests in pinewood packaging, which would affect a large share of goods trade, generated some concern in the 8–9 November 2000 meeting of the WTO Committee on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures.

The meeting also discussed a number of other specific trade issues, and “equivalence”, a subject which also comes under “
implementation” in the General Council

Among the issues generating lengthier discussion were:

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EU draft temporary emergency measures on wood packaging (G/SPS/N/EEC/93)

Bursaphelenchus xylophilusThis issue was raised by Canada which complained that this measure would cover 69% of all Canadian exports of all goods to the EU since it applies to packaging.

The draft measure covers a wide range of wood packaging that uses coniferous wood originating in Canada, China, Japan and the US. It is designed to protect EU forests against pinewood nematode (Bursaphelenchus xylophilus). The products covered would have to be either heat treated to 56░C for at least 30 minutes and have a moisture content below 20 per cent or have been pressure (impregnated) treated.

Canada recognized the EU’s legitimate need to protect its forests against pests, but urged the EU to follow its example by waiting until negotiations on multilateral standards are completed in the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC) even if pests are detected. Canada also urged all participants in the negotiations to work for a swift conclusion.

Sharing Canada’s concern were the US, Rep of Korea, Japan and Chile. They complained about both the “enormous impact” and the “abrupt” timing of the proposed measure, which in its original draft was due to take effect from 1 January 2001.

The EU said the measure was notified to the SPS Committee so that WTO members could comment, and three (including Canada) have commented so far. The draft is being reviewed and the original target date of 1 January will be postponed, the EU said. But it argued that an emergency has arisen since it found numerous occurrences of the pest. The EU added it could not wait for the IPPC negotiations to reach agreement since they appear to be heading for considerable delay. “This is a new and serious problem for us,” the EU said.

Thailand’s concern about Australian restrictions on durian imports

Thailand said it took from 1991 to August 2000 to obtain Australian clearance for imports of Thai durian (“oval spiny fruits containing a creamy pulp with a fetid smell and an agreeable taste,” according to the Oxford Dictionary; “stinks like hell, but tastes like heaven,” according to the Philippine delegation).

However, Thailand is concerned about the conditions, including: the requirement that a random sample of 450 fruit have to be cut open for every consignment of less than 1,000 fruit (the fruit is normally airfreighted within this size); the restriction of imports to the period from April to December; and the acceptance of only durians grown in the east of the country.

Australia explained at length the steps it took to obtain information from Thailand in order to make a risk assessment, and the way the information changed over the years. It said the number of fruits to be sampled is justified by the requirement of 95% statistical confidence that “durian seed borers” will only be found in 0.5% of consignments, that this is an internationally accepted standard, and that Australian mangoes transported between certain states within Australia also faced the same sampling requirements. However Thailand could cut fruit that are below export standard, Australia said. The permitted period of import is the months when the pest will not survive in Australia, and the accepted growing region is the only one meeting proper standards, Australia went on. The measure will be reviewed after a year, it added.

India, the Philippines and the EU expressed an interest in the issue.

Other specific measures discussed …

… included a New Zealand complaint about Indonesia maintaining a ban on fruit even though the original infestation (a few Mediterranean fruit flies found in May 1996) only lasted a few weeks; continued complaints about bans on imports of bovine semen (Canada about an Indian ban, the EU about an Argentine ban) which, according to the OIE cannot transmit BSE even from disease infected areas; and a complaint from Thailand about a Mexican ban on its rice (a complaint which is appeared on the agenda regularly for several years).

Equivalence (also an “implementation” issue in the General Council)

SPS measures reduce risks to consumers, livestock or plants to acceptable levels. An acceptable level of risk can often be achieved in alternative ways. Among the alternatives — and on the assumption that they are technically and economically feasible and provide the same level of food safety or animal and plant health — governments should select those which are not more trade restrictive than required to meet their health objective. Furthermore, if another country can show that the measures it applies provide the same level of health protection, these should be accepted as equivalent. This helps ensure that protection is maintained while providing the greatest quantity and variety of safe foodstuffs for consumers, the best availability of safe inputs for producers, and healthy economic competition.

Developing countries in particular say developed countries are not doing enough to accept that actions they are taking on exported products provide levels of protection that are equivalent to the developed countries’ requirements. This complaint has been raised as one of the many issues in the WTO General Council under the heading of “implementation”.

Informal SPS Committee consultations were held on this before the SPS meeting. At the heart of the discussion in the consultations was a US paper (G/SPS/GEN/212) which outlined the US experience and argued that in many cases equivalence agreements are unnecessary and cumbersome to negotiate. Many participants stressed that importing countries commonly accept products or alternative technical treatments, but this is ad hoc or informal. The chairman read out a summary of the discussion, which he will use to report to the General Council. India called for equivalence agreements between developed countries to be notified to the WTO so that developing countries could study them, and negotiate to join or forge similar agreements with developed countries.

Technical cooperation

Quite a lengthy discussion on issues raised by a Secretariat paper on the “typology” of technical cooperation G/SPS/GEN/206.

Chairing the meeting was S.I.M. Nayyar of Pakistan. The next meeting will be in March 2001.
NOTE: This summary has been written by the WTO Secretariat to help public understanding about developments in the SPS Committee. Unlike the meeting’s minutes, it is not an official record.

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