Food safety and health implementation: ‘equivalence’ decision OK’d

WTO members have settled one “implementation” issue by approving a decision on recognizing the equivalence of different food safety and animal and plant health measures.

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SPS Agreement

Article 4

1.  Members shall accept the sanitary or phytosanitary measures of other Members as equivalent, even if these measures differ from their own or from those used by other Members trading in the same product, if the exporting Member objectively demonstrates to the importing Member that its measures achieve the importing Member's appropriate level of sanitary or phytosanitary protection. For this purpose, reasonable access shall be given, upon request, to the importing Member for inspection, testing and other relevant procedures.

2.  Members shall, upon request, enter into consultations with the aim of achieving bilateral and multilateral agreements on recognition of the equivalence of specified sanitary or phytosanitary measures.

The decision was approved by the WTO’s Committee on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS) on 24 October.

It outlines steps designed to make it easier for all WTO members to make use of the “equivalence” provisions of the SPS Agreement, i.e. Article 4. This involves governments accepting different measures which provide the same level of health protection for food, animals and plants.

One objective is to help developing countries that use less sophisticated health and safety technologies than those required by importing countries to prove that their products are equally safe.

The issue has been raised by developing countries as a problem they face in implementing the current WTO agreements. It has been discussed in the WTO General Council in its preparations for the Doha Ministerial Conference.

Information that members have supplied on their experience with equivalence makes it clear that formal equivalence agreements covering countries’ entire health and safety systems are rare even between developed countries. This is because the formal agreements are very complicated technically, time-consuming to negotiate, and the improved market access that results is too modest to make the effort worthwhile.

On the other hand, it is more common for governments to recognize each other’s measures as applied to specific products. This can benefit trade.

The decision identifies the kind of information that importing and exporting countries should provide and some factors that importing countries should take into account — e.g. historical trade and the need to avoid hindering existing trade. It also addresses needs for technical assistance, encourages the relevant standard-setting bodies to accelerate their related work, and reinforces procedures to make measures transparent.

A number of developing countries submitted comments on an earlier draft. They include India, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Botswana, Oman, South Africa, Thailand, Chile and Argentina.

The SPS Committee discussed equivalence under an instruction from the WTO General Council in October 2000.

The WTO’s SPS Committee deals with food safety and animal and plant health, but does not set international standards. These are handled by other organizations, in particular the “three sisters” (Codex Alimentarius, Office International des Epizooties or World Organization for Animal Health, and the International Plant Protection Convention).

> The text of the decision