Food safety, etc

This briefing document focuses on the SPS issues raised in the lead-up to the Doha Ministerial Conference.

Sanitary and phytosanitary measures deal with food safety and animal and plant health standards. The WTO does not set the standards. The WTO’s SPS Agreement encourages member countries to use standards set by international organizations (see box), but it also allows countries to set their own standards.

The ‘three sisters’
The SPS Agreement identifies three standard-setting organizations:

> the FAO-WHO Codex Alimentarius Commission — for food safety
> the International Office for Epizootics — for animal health
> the FAO’s Secretariat of the International Plant Protection Convention — for plant health

It also says governments can agree to refer to any other international organizations or agreements whose membership is open to all WTO members.

These standards can be higher than the internationally agreed ones, but the agreement says they should be based on scientific evidence, should not discriminate between countries, and should not be a disguised restriction to trade.

The provisions strike a balance between two equally important objectives: helping governments protect consumers, and animal and plant health against known dangers and potential hazards; and avoiding the use of health and safety regulations as protectionism in disguise.

The following issues are among those raised in the lead up to the 2001 Ministerial Conference in Doha. Most were first raised in the preparations for the Seattle Ministerial Conference in 1999. They come under the heading of “implementation [of the existing Uruguay Round agreements]”. At the time of writing, it is uncertain whether these issues will lead to negotiations to amend the SPS Agreement itself. So far, no country has formally asked to reopen the agreement. Some countries have said some issues in the agreement need to be clarified. This could be dealt with, for instance by decisions or declarations from the Ministerial Conference or General Council.


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SPS measures reduce risks to consumers, animals or plants to acceptable levels. Different measures could be equivalent in providing the same level of health protection against risks of disease or contamination. Article 4 of the SPS Agreement requires governments — under certain conditions — to recognize other governments’ equivalent measures. The main question is how to establish that an exporting country’s measures are equivalent to those used in the importing country.

In the WTO, developing countries in particular say developed countries are not doing enough to accept that actions they are taking on exported products — in particular inspection and certification procedures — are equivalent to the importing developed countries’ requirements even when the measures are different, because the measures provide the same level of health protection. In October 2000, the General Council assigned the SPS Committee to examine these developing-country concerns.

Among the points raised in the committee since then are:

  • Different ways of achieving the level of protection required by the importing country: using the same measure; accepting that different individual measures applied to individual products can be equivalent; or accepting that different systems (such as national control systems) are equivalent.

  • Whether formal equivalence agreements (such as recognizing each others’ veterinary measures) are necessary — some members have argued that these are not necessary and could be too complicated to negotiate.

  • The need for transparency and information —members said they would inform each other through the WTO when they recognize that other members’ measures have equivalent results.

  • How to determine and compare the “appropriate level of protection” against a hazard or risk of a hazard such as disease. Members have discussed the need for the importing country to provide a clear description of the level of protection.

Members have been discussing a draft decision on implementing Article 4, i.e. equivalence.


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Voluntary commitments and reasonable time periods

A number of members, developing countries in particular, say the agreement is too vague on some points. They want to see this tightened through a ministerial declaration or some other means. They would also like some voluntary commitments turned into mandatory ones.

Two issues are the advance warning governments should provide when they draft new regulations, and the time developing countries should be allowed to adapt their exports to developed countries’ new standards. The SPS Agreement uses phrases such as “a reasonable” period of time. Some countries want this to be clarified — specifying six months or a year, for example.

Several countries want the whole of Article 10, which deals with special and differential treatment for developing countries, to be mandatory.

Some countries see the clarification as part of improving the implementation of the SPS Agreement. Others say it involves interpreting or modifying the agreement and therefore it should be included in the new negotiations.


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Other developing-country concerns

In addition to seeking clarification on the above issues, a number of developing countries have expressed concern about their lack of resources for implementing the agreement. Among the burdens are:

  • developing countries’ difficulty in participating effectively in drafting and agreeing the relevant international standards.

  • monitoring new regulations in their export markets

  • the difficulty of demonstrating sufficient scientific evidence to justify their own measures or challenge those of others

These countries are calling for both technical assistance, and more time to comply.


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Risk and precaution

Article 5, paragraph 7
of the SPS Agreement:

“In cases where relevant scientific evidence is insufficient, a member may provisionally adopt sanitary or phytosanitary measures on the basis of available pertinent information, including that from the relevant international organizations as well as from sanitary or phytosanitary measures applied by other members. In such circumstances, members shall seek to obtain the additional information necessary for a more objective assessment of risk and review the sanitary or phytosanitary measure accordingly within a reasonable period of time.”

 The recent debate surrounding some food safety and animal health issues — including disputes in the WTO over the use of hormones in beef production and over regulations for salmon — raises the question of whether the SPS Agreement’s preference for scientific evidence goes far enough in dealing with possible risks for consumers and producers.

A phrase that has emerged in the debate is the “precautionary principle”, a kind of “safety first” approach to deal with scientific uncertainty. To some extent, Article 5.7 of the SPS Agreement addresses this, but some governments have said outside the WTO that they would like the principle strengthened. The “precautionary principle” has been discussed in the SPS Committee, but there have been no proposals so far for altering existing agreements. It has also been raised by the EU, Japan, Switzerland and some other countries in the current agriculture negotiations.


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Genetically modified organisms and biotechnology

These issues possibly span several WTO agreements, including SPS, Agriculture, Intellectual Property (TRIPS) and Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT). They have also been discussed in the Trade and Environment Committee.

Although member governments have notified a large number of regulations related to GMOs to the SPS Committee, most of the discussion on the subject has been in the TBT Committee with the focus on labelling regulations.

In the current agriculture negotiations, some members have called for clarity in the WTO rules as applied to products of new technologies.

Other material:
An outline of member countries’ obligations under the WTO’s SPS Agreement can be found in the section on
agriculture in “Understanding the WTO”

See more detailed information:
> SPS Understanding
> WTO booklet on the SPS Agreement