Briefing note: Food safety, animal and plant health (SPS) — how to trade safely

Is our food safe? Are our farmersĺ livestock and crops? Or our forests? Or even the crates and packaging used to ship goods across the world?

Questions such as these are important for our well-being. But they are also increasingly significant in trade: for example, one recent survey found that almost three-quarters of Kenyan companies feel that their exports are hampered by measures taken to deal with these and similar problems.

Updated: November 2013

THIS EXPLANATION is designed to help the public understand developments in the WTO. While every effort has been made to ensure the contents are accurate, it does not prejudice member governments’ positions.

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Many if not most trade barriers are tariffs. Many are not, and as import duties fall around the world, these “non-tariff measures” are increasingly exposed as obstacles to trade (see World Trade Report 2012.) While they are a challenge for exporters, particularly in developing countries, suppliers that are able to meet the required standards can enjoy better access to markets.

One set of “non-tariff measures” is known as sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS), dealing with food safety and animal and plant health. SPS measures aim to ensure, for example, that a country’s consumers are being supplied with food that is safe to eat — by acceptable standards — while also ensuring that strict health and safety regulations are not being used as an excuse to shield domestic producers from competition.

Essentially, food safety and animal and plant health measures should be based on agreed international standards or scientific evidence of risk. Emergency measures can also be taken provided certain conditions are met. The most recent WTO meeting on this subject saw a record number of concerns raised by countries about each other’s SPS measures. Talking about these concerns can help solve the problems.


Some current issues

The specific trade measures that are most frequently discussed in the WTO SPS Committee tend to deal with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, or mad cow disease), avian influenza (bird flu), foot and mouth disease, and various plant diseases and pests such as fruit flies. The most common complaints are that importing countries are not following the international standards. Long delays in completing risk assessments or allowing imports is another frequent complaint.

Transparency: sharing information. One of the SPS Committee’s key roles is to act as a means for members to share information. They have to notify each other through the WTO when they are introducing new or changed import requirements. Normally this has to be notified in advance so that other countries have a chance to comment. More here

Regionalization. The key issue here is recognition that an exporting region within a country is disease-free or pest-free. Geographically larger members in particular (the European Union, Brazil, Canada, etc) object to blanket bans on all their exports when a disease exists only in some regions. More here

Equivalence — when governments recognize other countries’ measures as acceptable even if they are different from their own, so long as an equivalent level of protection is provided. The idea is simple and is a requirement in the SPS Agreement. Much more difficult is how to do it. More here

Private sector standards. Some developing countries have started to raise the question of standards set by the private sector, such as supermarket chains. The committee has agreed to take some action to reduce potential negative effects of private standards, but discussions continue. More here

Special treatment for developing countries. Debate continues on how and when to be lenient to poorer countries (for example, giving them more time to implement new measures) without endangering consumers and farming in importing countries. The committee has agreed on a procedure for developing countries to ask for special treatment or for technical assistance to help them meet SPS requirements. More here

When talking can produce results. The SPS Committee’s role as an information clearing house has helped defuse some disputes. A couple of examples are Sri Lanka’s cinnamon exports to the EU, and EU regulations on aflatoxin, which can cause cancer. More here


Find out more:

Jargon buster 

Place the cursor over a term to see its definition:

• equivalence

• notification

• regionalization

• sanitary and phytosanitary measures

• S&D, STD, special and differential treatment

> More jargon: glossary