29–30 March 2006

Novel debate on EU’s food regulation

A proposed revision of the EU regulation on novel foods has aroused the concern of several developing countries, mainly from Latin America, the Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures Committee learned in its 29–30 March 2006 meeting. The proposed regulation is designed to protect consumers but it can still be amended, the EU said.


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Almost a week of informal and formal meetings also saw continued discussion on regionalization and special and differential treatment for developing countries, and heard updates on the situation in various countries on avian influenza, foot and mouth disease and other diseases or pests. The week ended with a workshop on implementation.

Although the short time between the last SPS Committee meeting (1-2 February) and this one meant a lighter agenda in terms of specific trade concerns, for the first time members began to seriously consider the follow-up on several issues raised during the second review of the operation and implementation of the agreement, which was completed in June 2005.

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Specific trade concerns: novel foods and some older issues 

The European Union’s draft revision of the novel food regulation, due to take effect in 2007, was discussed alongside diseases and pests that appear more regularly under the heading of “specific trade concerns”.

Colombia, Ecuador and Peru said the current regulation is designed primarily to deal with new technologies, such as genetic modification, but it affects their ability to export “small exotic traditional products” based on their rich biodiversity. They said they are concerned that the proposed modifications to the regulation would not resolve these problems. Some of these products have been available in their countries for centuries and should not be lumped together with new technologies such as genetic modification, they said.

They were supported by Paraguay, Costa Rica, Honduras, El Salvador, Chile, Brazil, Mexico, Argentina and Uruguay, among Latin American countries, and also Benin (which asked when a product is “new”), and India.

The EU said the draft regulation is not targeted at biodiversity products but at new technologies and new products. It has also received a lot of comment from within the EU, it said, including from companies wanting to market foods with as little regulation and intervention as possible. However, the category of “biodiversity products” is broad and in the past has included some that have proved harmful. Therefore it is also in the exporters’ interests for their products to be cleared as safe, the EU said.

It invited representatives of the commenting countries to discuss the proposed regulation in Brussels where the draft is still being modified, and promised to explain the draft better and to keep the SPS Committee informed.

Also under the “specific trade concerns” headings were calls from the EU and others for fellow-members to apply science or international standards and regionalization (recognizing that risks are present in regions rather than whole territories) to diseases such as mad cow disease (BSE) and avian influenza. The EU reported that it has lifted the export ban on UK beef and expects trade to resume normally between its members states.

New Zealand repeated its concerns about the length of time Australia is taking to accept its apples and continued to object to Australia treating fireblight as a risk in mature apples. The comments came on the eve of Canberra’s 30 March deadline for comments and Australia outlined the remaining procedure for its risk assessment.

Chile, on the other hand, reported that it has almost completely resolved a similar problem with Australia over table grapes and thanked Australia for its cooperation.

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The key concept here is recognition that an exporting region is disease-free or pest-free (or has a lower incidence). Discussion in an informal meeting and in the formal meeting showed 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 should wait for two standards-setting organizations to finish their own work in order to avoid duplication. The two bodies are the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC) and World Organization for Animal Health (OIE).

A Secretariat background paper G/SPS/GEN/640 will be updated before the June SPS meeting, based on inputs from members, and New Zealand — one of the countries concerned about duplication — said it will prepare a document comparing side-by-side the relevant work in the SPS Committee and the other two organizations.

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Special and differential treatment 

A report to the General Council is due by the end of 2006. The chairperson reported that in the informal meeting the African Group submitted a revised proposal, and that a large part of the discussion was also on technical assistance.

Egypt explained that the revised African proposal addresses members’ concerns about an earlier proposal, at the same time aiming to make special and differential treatment provisions more precise, effective and operational for developing countries facing market losses due to SPS measures.

The text envisages consultations at the request of the exporting country when it is concerned about an importing country’s measure and that this should lead to changes to the measure, technical assistance to the developing country, or agreement on other means to assist the developing country maintain it market access for the product concerned. The proposal also includes notification to the SPS Committee and fully funded technical assistance.

Although the text was only tabled at the meeting itself, both the initiative and text were broadly welcomed, Chairperson Young reported. Many developing countries supported it, noting how it would help address the problems which they face in complying with their trading partners’ SPS requirements.

Some members noted that the new text is similar to a decision already taken by the SPS Committee (G/SPS/33). Egypt said the spirit is the same but the new text contains more details.

Mr Young reported that a detailed discussion of technical assistance followed. The discussions on technical assistance focused in particular on how the assistance can be more effective and responsive to the particular needs of developing countries. Many developing countries said that they now need more in-depth and export oriented capacity building, although a number stressed that they still lack a basic knowledge and understanding of the SPS Agreement.

Also stressed in the discussions was the need for developing countries to identify more precisely what technical assistance they need, something that can be done by using existing diagnostic tools.

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Implementation workshop 

A WTO-organized workshop on the implementation of the SPS Agreement allowed the participation of close to 40 officials from developing and least-developed countries, many of them having never before participated in SPS Committee meetings. The workshop focused on what tools currently exist and what members can do at the national level — and at no or low cost — to make better use of the SPS Agreement.

The 40 officials from developing and least-developed countries were able to attend because of support from the WTO’s Global Trust Fund. They were encouraged to answer questions on their countries’ experience in implementing the SPS Agreement. In many cases this proved to be a first opportunity for these countries to share with other members specific information on what systems they have in place and what their particular needs are.

Discussions also covered how to improve coordination on SPS matters at national levels, including how to ensure involvement of all relevant stakeholders and coherence with national positions at the WTO, Codex, OIE and IPPC. (More on the workshop here).

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Next meeting 

Tentatively, 28–30 June 2006, with informal meetings on 26–28 June

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These are some of the trade issues or concerns discussed in the meeting:

  • Argentina — advances in the implementation of ISPM 15 (on wood packaging)

  • US — actions regarding BSE

  • China — implementation of regionalization for animal diseases

  • EU — avian influenza situation in the EU

  • EU — BSE embargo on UK exports of live cattle, beef and beef products lifted

  • EU novel food regulation — concerns of Colombia, Ecuador and Peru

  • Brazil’s lack of regionalization for Newcastle disease — EU’s concerns

  • Argentina’s restrictions on beef exports — EU’s concerns

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

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

  • Mexico’s restrictions on US poultry — US’ concerns

  • Israel’s import restrictions on EU beef due to BSE — EU’s concerns

  • Japan’s import restrictions on EU beef due to BSE — EU’s concerns

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Chairperson: Mr Gregg Young, US, handing over to Mr Juan Antonio DORANTES Sánchez, Mexico, at the end of the meeting.