SANITARY AND PHYTOSANITARY (SPS) MEASURES
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.
- An outline of member countries obligations under the WTOs SPS Agreement can be found in the section on agriculture in Understanding the WTO” go to “the website version”).
- More details can be found in the WTO booklet on the SPS Agreement or on the WTO website: the section on the SPS agreement which includes a page on understanding the SPS Agreement .
> Director-Generals message
> Built-in Agenda
> The WTO agreements and developing countries
> Least-developed countries
> Agriculture (1)
> Agriculture (2)
> Intellectual property (TRIPS)
> Textiles and clothing
> Information technology products
> Trade and environment
> Trade and investment
> Trade facilitation
> Trade and competition policy
> Transparency in government procurement
> Trade and labour standards
> Disputes (1)
> Disputes (2)
> Electronic commerce
> Members and accessions
> Some facts and figures
> Glossary of terms
> Other ministerial meetings
Sanitary and phytosanitary measures deal with food safety and animal and plant health standards. The WTO does not set the standards. The WTOs 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
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 agreements operation and implementation
(which took place in 1998), and the committee should continue to be the forum for these
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 WTOs 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 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 FAOs 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.
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 Agreements 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. However, at the time of writing no proposal had
been received. It is also unclear whether this would be handled under the SPS Agreement or
through some other means.
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.
Among the proposals are suggestions for a new working party or examination group to be set up to consider how adequate and effective existing WTO rules are for dealing with genetically modified organisms, biotechnology and other new subjects (from Canada in document WT/GC/W/359, Japan in WT/GC/W/365).
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.