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Committee discusses foot and mouth disease, BSE and equivalence

With its foot and mouth disease crisis now easing, the EU pressed fellow WTO members to tailor their trade measures more closely to science and international standards, in the 10–11 July 2001 meeting of the SPS Committee. Also discussed were other specific issues such as “mad cow disease” (BSE), and “equivalence” of sanitary and phytosanitary measures, part of the General Council’s discussion on implementing the current WTO agreements.


Sanitary and phytosanitary measures” = Food safety and animal and plant health measures or standards 

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Among the issues generating lengthier discussion were:


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Foot and mouth disease 

This issue was discussed under several different agenda items. The EU outlined the latest situation among its members. In the UK, the number of new cases has fallen considerably, from over 40 per day at the peak to single digit numbers. There have been no new cases in Ireland and France since April (outbreaks in both countries related to imports from the UK), and in June the two countries had foot and mouth “disease-free” status restored. In the Netherlands, vaccination has stopped the spread and “disease-free” status could be restored in August, the EU said.

> More information: on the EU Commission’s website

The EU said it understood trading partners’ emergency measures, but now it considers as unacceptable, the restrictions that apply to products from all over the EU, or to products that do not transmit the disease. The EU urged countries to apply the recommendations of the Office International des Epizooties (OIE, or World Organization for Animal Health) and to limit their measures to products from regions where the risk exists rather than the entire EU.

The internal border controls abolished under the European single market have been replaced with stricter controls and monitoring over the origins of livestock and products, the EU said, and therefore it is untrue that transportation throughout the Union can spread the disease more easily.

The EU called on the SPS Committee to take a strong position against “unjustified” measures and avoid setting a precedent for tolerating them.

Argentina raised similar concerns about measures taken against its products in response to outbreaks in some parts of the country. Uruguay also said restrictions on certain products such as ultra-heat treated (UHT) milk products are unjustified.

Some countries, such as the US and Australia, said they had imposed restrictions in order to deal with the risk posed by the serious disease, but were monitoring the situation and adapting their measures. At present restrictions apply to products from the UK, Ireland, France and the Netherlands, the US said. It commended the EU for its tough and swift action.

Australia said it has to defend its 120 million sheep, but it has lifted restrictions on products from Austria and Denmark and is discussing the situation with French officials.

South African informed the committee about its recent outbreaks. Indonesia complained about a Japanese ban on sugarcane tops (used for animal feed) based on the risk of foot and mouth disease — Indonesia said the OIE has declared it free of the disease, and stressed that sugarcane tops could not transmit foot and mouth disease. Japan replied it is waiting for additional information from Indonesia.


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Mad cow disease 

Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE or mad cow disease) was also discussed under a number of agenda items. The EU informed the committee that new regulations on transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (TSE, the broader group of degenerative brain diseases that can be transmitted between individuals or species, which includes BSE) took effect on 1 July. They include classification of countries, both inside and outside the EU according to risk, and based on the OIE’s classification. The measures affect imports, exports and trade within the EU.

> More information: on the EU Commission’s website

Countries that consider themselves to be BSE-free, particularly Canada and the US, questioned the EU’s method in making regional assessments of the risk of BSE. Australia and New Zealand said their recently introduced emergency measures will soon be replaced with more permanent ones.

Peru, Chile and the US expressed concern about the EU’s restrictions on the use of fishmeal as a feed for ruminants (sheep, cattle, etc). They said the ban is unjustified because fishmeal does not transmit BSE. Chile said its fishmeal comes from fish that are harvest wild. Peru said the restriction is causing unemployment.

The EU said it is still examining the regulation and trying to minimize the trade impact. Caution is necessary in order to avoid cross-contamination with other feed ingredients, the EU said. Fishmeal is not banned, but strict conditions are applied for use in the EU, for example it can be used for non-ruminant animals if it is produced in dedicated factories, etc.


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Other specific issues 

Among the other issues discussed:

  • 3MCPD in soy sauce: ASEAN welcomed the EU announcement that relaxed limits will apply shortly

  • The US, New Zealand and Chile complained about Japanese restrictions on apples to combat fire blight, a bacterial disease, because, they said, scientific research shows negligible risk of transmission

  • The EU complained about “lengthy, complicated” US measures on imported potted plants

  • Ecuador said it suspects Turkey’s certification for banana imports is tailored to protect domestic bananas during the harvest season

  • Bolivia, backed by Brazil, Chile, Argentina and India, continued to complain about the EU’s maximum permitted aflatoxin levels for brazil nuts and other nuts.

  • The US, supported by the EU and ASEAN, continued to complain about the length of time Australia is taking to allow imports of Californian table grapes. Australia said it needs to assess the risk from “glassy-winged sharp-shooters”. The US said the pest feed on, live in, lay eggs on or “hitch-hike” on table grapes.

Twelve other items were raised under “other business” and could be discussed at greater length in future.

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(also an ‘implementation’ issue in the General Council in preparation for the Doha Ministerial Conference

This is the question of countries recognizing that different measures could be equivalent in providing the same level of health protection against risks of disease or contamination.

There were further discussions on this. The Secretariat has compiled ideas presented so far, identifying five issues: whether a measure required in an exporting country has to be the same as is used in the importing country, administrative burdens arising from agreements recognizing equivalence, the “appropriate level of protection”, international harmonization, and transparency and confidence.

Argentina submitted a new paper discussing, among other things, analysis of equivalence based on specific products rather than entire national control systems.

An additional meeting could be called in late July or in September in order to prepare concrete ideas for the General Council. 

Background explanation: SPS measures reduce risks to consumers, livestock or plants to acceptable levels. Measures to achieve an acceptable level of risk can often be different. 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 measures that 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. (SPS Agreement, Article 4.)

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”.

This was the second meeting of 2001. Chairing it was William Ehler of Uruguay. The next meeting will be on 31 October, 1 November 2001, with the possibility of an additional session on “equivalence” before that.