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Committee looks at equivalence, transparency, diseases and GMOs

The SPS Committee, meeting 31 October and 1 November 2001, embarked on work under its new decision on equivalence and discussed transparency. Among the issues also raised were foot and mouth disease, BSE and genetically modified organisms.

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“Sanitary and phytosanitary measures (SPS)” = Food safety and animal and plant health measures or standards 

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Summary   back to top

Informal meetings took place before the regular meeting of the SPS Committee. These dealt with “equivalence” — governments accepting that different measures used by other governments, which provide the same level of health protection for food, animals and plants, can be equivalent to their own — and on transparency and the recommended procedures for governments to notify their SPS measures to fellow-members through the WTO.

On equivalence, the committee discussed its work programme following the adoption of the 24 October 2001 equivalence decision (see WTO news story). It agreed to continue discussing the subject in informal meetings preceding the Committee’s regular meetings.

On transparency, the committee discussed a Brazilian proposal regarding measures that affect developing countries’ trade. It began to review the recommended notification procedures.

Members raised many issues, including several measures related to foot-and-mouth disease, BSE and restrictions on fruit. Questions related to genetically modified organisms were also raised.

Details   back to top

Among the issues generating lengthier discussion were:


The Committee began to discuss its work programme to further the implementation of Article 4 following the 24 October adoption of the Equivalence Decision (G/SPS/19, see text).

Several members proposed clarifications for a number of aspects of the decision, Argentina presenting its own views in a paper. The United States had already flagged that some concepts needed to be explained, including how “historic trade” should be taken into account in determining whether an accelerated procedure could be applied to recognize equivalence. The chairman encouraged members to identify issues to be considered in the work programme and to provide background papers and proposals for the next meetings.

The Equivalence Decision says the work of the Codex Alimentarius, the OIE and the IPPC on equivalence needs to be encouraged. The chairman said he would write a letter to the three organizations to bring this to their attention. The committee agreed to invite the three observer organizations to future informal meetings on the subject — observers do not normally attend informal meetings.

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Underlying the discussion was the latest recommended notification procedures (document G/SPS/7/Rev.1 of 26 November 1999). 

Brazilian proposed (G/SPS/W/108) reviewing the procedures to ensure that developing countries are alerted to any application of measures which may affect their export products — a concern that Brazil has also raised in the context of the General Council’s debate on implementation. Some members said that it is often difficult to discern if a particular country’s exports are likely to be affected by a measure. Some said that the committee should first examine how the transparency provisions were currently being implemented before adding new obligations.

The committee periodically reviews the notification procedures, and New Zealand has proposed a number of other modifications and improvements. The Committee will continue this review at its March meeting

At the informal meeting on transparency, the Committee also discussed paragraph 12 of the Committee’s Decision on Equivalence, which instructs the Committee to revise the recommended notification procedures to provide for the notification of the conclusion of equivalence agreements between Members. A few delegations raised the question as to what constituted an equivalence agreement, and what should be notified. Other delegations suggested that the Committee should study examples of such agreements. The Chairman encouraged Members to provide written examples of equivalence agreements, to serve as a basis for the Secretariat to prepare a proposal on how the notification issue might be treated. Members agreed to continue the discussions on transparency at an informal before the next Committee meeting.

Foot and mouth, BSE, GMOs and other issues
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As in previous meetings, there were detailed discussions of foot-and mouth disease and BSE, and of trade restrictions imposed in response to recent disease outbreaks.

The EU, Japan and Argentina provided updates of their disease-situations, and asked their trading partners to adapt their measures accordingly. Peru and Chile again raised concerns that their fishmeal exports were being unfairly affected by EU measures on BSE.

Other trade concerns raised included Japan’s measures on fruit imports from the US related to fire blight, Australia’s restrictions on fruit and prawn imports, and EU aflatoxin levels.

Several members reported solutions to trade problems raised at previous meetings, including the Slovak Republic’s restrictions on apples, pears and quinces, emergency EU measures on citrus pulp and on gelatin, and Australia’s restrictions on sauces containing benzoic acid.

In considering notifications for the first time in the SPS Committee, the US and Canada enquired about the EU’s restrictions on genetically modified organisms (GMOs). They complained that the EU had failed to notify its latest directives on traceability and labelling under SPS, even though these indicate that health protection is one of the objectives. The EU delegate said that any comments on this notification should be sent to its authority handling technical barriers to trade issues.

Under “other business”, the US also complained about the lack of scientific justification for the EU’s continued de facto moratorium on approval of GMO products, and Canada said the latest EC measures discriminate against products produced by GM technology, even where no trace remains in the final products.

Technical assistance and cooperation
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The Secretariat introduced a new questionnaire designed to ascertain developing countries’ technical assistance needs (G/SPS/W113). Chile proposed ideas for elaborating technical assistance programmes (G/SPS/GEN/287).

Members noted that it is essential for developing countries to identify their needs. They agreed to hold an informal meeting before the Committee’s next regular meeting to discuss Chile’s paper and any responses received to the questionnaire.

South Africa indicated its intention to raise an item related to the OIE standard for African Horse Sickness under monitoring the use of international standards, and introduced this item under other business.

The next meeting will be on 20–21 March 2002.
This meeting’s chairman was William Ehlers of Uruguay.

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