The meeting is at the Washington State Convention and Trade Center


Food safety, etc

This briefing document focuses on the SPS issues raised in the lead-up to the Seattle Ministerial Conference. They will not necessarily be included in the post-Seattle negotiations.

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.

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 ministerial conference. It remains to be seen whether they will be accepted for further work, or if they will be included in negotiations. These issues could be considered “implementation” of the existing agreement, or be studied by a working party without necessarily leading to negotiations to revise the SPS Agreement. Countries may decide they would prefer not to re-open the SPS Agreement.

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Clarification of ‘vague’ provisions  

A number of members, developing countries in particular, say they want to see the wording of the agreement tightened, and some voluntary commitments turned into mandatory ones.

For example: Article 2 refers to equal treatment for countries “where identical or similar conditions prevail”. Some developing countries complain that their products are not being given equal treatment because the “identical or similar conditions” are being overlooked. They would like the term to be clarified. Some countries would also like to see more developing countries included in agreements where governments recognize each others’ SPS measures as equivalent, including inspection and certification procedures.

The SPS Agreement uses phrases such as “a reasonable” period of time in provisions on giving advance warning of new regulations, or on allowing developing countries an opportunity to adapt their exports to developed countries’ higher standards.

Proposals range from: a simple call for the relevant time-period to be clarified, to specifying “at least 12 months” for developing countries to adapt to new regulations. 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. Some also say implementation issues have already been discussed in the SPS Committee during the review of the agreement’s operation and implementation (which took place in 1998), and the committee should continue to be the forum for these issues.

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Other developing countries’ 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:

  • the obligation to keep fellow members informed, through the WTO’s SPS Committee, about their regulations (“notification”)
  • 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.

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.

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 objetive assessment of risk and review the sanitary or phytosanitary measure accordingly within a reasonable period of time.”