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27–28 June 2006

Christmas may come late this year for the SPS Committee

Chinese exports of wooden Christmas trees were the subject of one of the 13 specific trade concerns raised during the 27–28 June 2006 meeting of the WTO committee dealing with plant and animal health and food safety — sanitary and phytosanitary measures (SPS).

It was China that raised the concern, following restrictions by the United States. Routine inspections at US ports of entry have turned up beetles among the fairy lights — close relations of another pest (the Asian long horned beetle) which the US had already spent $200 million trying to eradicate.

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Normally preceded by two days of informal meetings, the arrival of trade ministers to try to seek a way forward for the stalled Doha negotiations meant the SPS Committee was limited to a two day meeting in formal session and moved from its usual home in the WTO to the offices of the International Labour Organization.

Although compressed, the committee still enjoyed a full agenda, which included specific trade concerns, special and differential treatment, regionalization, monitoring of the use of international standards and follow-up on issues raised during the second review of the operation and implementation of the SPS Agreement.

Specific trade concerns: the beetles, GMOs and those novel foods again  back to top

Christmas tree beetles. China complained about measures taken by the US to prevent beetles hitching a ride on wooden artefacts from China, including Christmas trees. These were discussed alongside other issues such as India’s prior approval and labelling regime for GMOs and the EU’s novel food regulation under the heading “specific trade concerns”.

China’s complaint was that the measures already jointly taken by the US and Chinese authorities in response to the interceptions of beetles on wooden Christmas trees were sufficient to allow trade to resume. However, in the view of the US, continuing interceptions (which had numbered 418 already) justified further visits to production sites and the completion of a pest risk assessment. Artificial Christmas trees fumigated with methyl bromide or those whose bark had been removed were not restricted, the US said.

GMOs. India’s import approval system and labelling scheme for genetically modified organisms were the subject of concerns from the US, supported by Argentina, Brazil, Canada and Chile.

These concerns were twofold. Firstly, the US requested that the measures notified to the Technical Barriers to Trade Committee in notifications G/TBT/N/IND/12 and G/TBT/N/IND/17 should be notified also to the SPS Committee. Secondly, the US questioned the scientific justification underlying the measures and the lack of clarity as to their scope.

India recalled that these measures were nothing new; its Genetic Engineering Approval Committee had been sitting since 1989. What was new was the more thorough approach to applying the existing measures. India assured members that it would consider comments at an inter-ministerial meeting planned for the end of the year and that it would consider notification of the measures in the SPS Committee.

Novel foods. The now not so novel issue of the EU Novel Food Regulation was raised again by Peru as a trade concern. To the concerns raised at the March 2006 SPS Committee meeting were added further disquiet on the part of Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Paraguay, the Philippines, India, Bolivia and Brazil.

They again questioned the justification for giving different treatment to “products of bio-diversity” traditionally consumed outside the EU, compared to food products or ingredients habitually consumed within the EU. Peru pointed to the cost involved in providing the scientific studies to back up claims of safety, while Ecuador noted some of these traditional products were already being exported outside the home-country market (e.g. to the US) without any ill-effects. Paraguay questioned how a natural sweetener, already evaluated by WHO/FAO, would be treated under this regulation.

In reply, the EU underlined that there are products within the loose and undefined category “products of biodiversity” for which genuine safety concerns exist. It recalled that the regulation applies to products marketed in the EU after 1997 and that its scope of application is not limited only to third countries, but primarily affects food producers operating in the EU market.

The EU said it welcomed examples of products already approved in other markets and for which negative development impacts might be felt, as they would be useful in the further elaboration of this regulation by the European Parliament and EU member states.

Special and differential treatment  back to top

The committee chairperson’s summary report of the informal meeting of 24 May was well-received by members, but failed to stimulate a substantive debate on the outstanding proposals for special and differential treatment of developing countries (S&D).

No new text was tabled by the S&D proponents. Recommendations were made by the United States to develop a “Good Practices Guide” on special and differential treatment and to rework the SPS Committee’s questionnaire on technical assistance along the lines of the questionnaire circulated in the Technical Barriers to Trade Committee G/TBT/16.

In the absence of substantive debate, however, the chairperson scheduled further consideration of these issues at an informal meeting in October. A report to the General Council is due by the end of 2006.

In contrast, the Committee enjoyed a good debate on a proposal by the small economies WT/COMTD/SE/W/16/rev.1. Introducing the proposal, Barbados recalled that the Technical Barriers to Trade Committee and TRIPS (intellectual property) Council had favourably discussed a similar proposal.

The proposal was broadly welcomed by members but concerns were raised about the lack of clarity over which regional bodies would be designated and whether or not these regional bodies would receive assistance ahead of individual members.

Chairperson Juan Antonio Dorantes of Mexico, informed the committee that he would report to the Trade and Development Committee on the positive tenor of the discussion and offered to hold further informal discussions if proponents asked for them.

Regionalization  back to top

An animated debate took place in the committee’s on-going discussion with over 20 members taking the floor to present their views on how work should progress on the topic of regionalization.

The key concept here is recognition that an exporting region is disease-free or pest-free (or has a lower incidence).

Unfortunately, the debate served principally to highlight members’ continuing differences over a number of issues, particularly whether the SPS Committee should develop procedural guidelines, including agreed time limits, for the process of recognizing that areas are free of a disease, and whether work in the SPS Committee would duplicate that underway in the two standards-setting organizations with responsibilities in this area: the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC) and World Organization for Animal Health (OIE). The Secretariat was asked to update its background paper G/SPS/GEN/640 on the basis of inputs from Members.

Monitoring the use of international standards  back to top

The Committee agreed to renew the existing procedure for monitoring of the use of international standards. The current annual procedure will now be reviewed as part of the four-yearly review of the operation of the SPS Agreement. The Committee also adopted the 8th annual report on the use of the procedure.

Issues arising from the second review  back to top

Discussions on issues arising from the second review of the operation of the SPS Agreement continued at this meeting with a number of submissions tabled by members across a range of issues (transparency, undue delays, the relationships between the SPS Committee and the international standards settings bodies, use of ad hoc consultations). The chairperson agreed to revert to these at an informal meeting prior to the October committee meetings.

Next meeting  back to top

Tentatively, 11-13 October, with informals on 9-11 October.

P.S.  back to top

Other trade concerns discussed included:

  • Chinese Taipei’s measures on Canadian beef — concerns of Canada

  • Romania’s proposed measures on pork products — concerns of Canada

  • Dominican republic tolerance levels for soil content on potato tubers — concerns of Canada

  • Bolivia’s slaughter of imported breeding cattle — concern of Mexico

  • Import restrictions on ec exports of live birds, meat, meat products and other derivates due to avian influenza — concern of the EC

  • Japan’s import suspension on heat-processed straw and forage for feed — concern of China

  • Guatemala’s restrictions on poultry meat products and sub products (including eggs) — concern of Mexico

  • Israel’s lack of phytosanitary import legislation — concerns of the EU

  • Australia’s import restrictions on New Zealand apples — concerns of New Zealand

  • Japan’s positive list system for pesticides, veterinary drugs and food additives minimum residue levels — concerns of China

Documents tabled as part of the issues arising from the second review of the operation of the SPS Agreement included:

  • A joint submission by Australia, New Zealand and the United States regarding implementation of transparency provisions (G/SPS/W/197).

  • Submissions relating to the relationship between the SPS Committee and standard-setting bodies have been made by New Zealand (G/SPS/W/179), Brazil (G/SPS/W/182), Colombia (G/SPS/W/188) and Chile (G/SPS/GEN/).

  • Costa Rica (G/SPS/W/180) and Brazil (G/SPS/W/182), Colombia (G/SPS/W/188) and Chile (G/SPS/GEN) have tabled suggestions relating to the issue of undue delays.

  • Suggestions with respect to consultations under Article 12.1 and the handling of specific trade concerns were submitted by Costa Rica (G/SPS/W/180 and G/SPS/W/183), Brazil (G/SPS/W/182), Colombia (G/SPS/W/188) and Chile (to be circulated shortly).

(All of these documents can be downloaded by searching WTO documents).

Find out more …  back to top

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Chairperson: Mr Juan Antonio DORANTES Sánchez, Mexico.

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