Current issues in SPS

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

Sanitary and phytosanitary measures deal with food safety and animal and plant health. They aim to ensure 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.

Updated: 29 November 2011

> Follow SPS
> Definitions, criteria, background

Some current issues
> Transparency: sharing information
> Regionalization
> Equivalence
> Private sector standards
> Special treatment for developing countries
> When talking produces results


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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  • Sanitary = health in general (sometimes animal health)
  • Phytosanitary = plant health
  • Sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) = food safety and animal and plant health


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Criteria >

SPS measures include import restrictions or maximum residue levels. The agreement says governments’ SPS measures should be based on:


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Background >

The SPS Committee’s job is to monitor how countries are applying the SPS Agreement and to discuss issues that arise from that.

The SPS Agreement tries to sort out genuine cases from those that are potentially excuses for protectionism. It does this by saying that measures either have to be based on scientific evidence of risk, or on recognized international standards (see above). If a country applies international standards, it is less likely to be challenged legally in the WTO than if it sets its own standards. But countries are free to set their own standards based on science.

  • SPS issues are becoming more important as tariff barriers fall
  • Food producers, particularly in developing countries, are becoming increasingly concerned that their attempts to export to richer markets are being hampered by SPS measures. At issue are genuine risks versus protectionism in disguise
  • Individual private sector exporters tend to assume that the real motive for importing countries’ SPS measures is really protectionism — to protect producers rather than consumers, livestock or crops.
  • But there are genuine needs to have SPS measures.


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Some current issues

The specific trade measures that are most frequently discussed in the 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 > back to top

One of the WTO 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.

A lot of information is provided this way. Over 10,000 food safety, plant and animal health requirements have been notified, and a growing number of countries are actively providing the information. (See also documents in the series G/SPS/GEN/804*.)

However, not all countries are providing advance warnings, and complaints about insufficient transparency are common.


Regionalization > back to top

See the committee’s guidelines G/SPS/48

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 EU, Brazil, Canada, etc) object to blanket bans on all their exports when a disease exists only in some regions.

The SPS Committee has developed guidelines to help governments implement this concept without too much delay, clarifying who (the exporting or importing country) does what, and setting out a process to follow.


Equivalence > back to top

See the committee’s guidelines (G/SPS/19/Rev.2)

Equivalence is 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. Years of discussion have led to guidelines, which then required clarifying. Some recognition of equivalence is in place, but members will always feel that their trading partners can do more.

Developing countries in particular say the actions they are taking on their exports provide levels of protection that are not recognized as equivalent to importing developed countries’ requirements.


Private sector standards > back to top

The committee generally deals with standards set by international standards-setting bodies and those imposed by governments. But 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 (see document G/SPS/55).

  • This issue was first raised in June 2005 because of private standards for bananas. Saint Vincent and the Grenadines said private standards are often more rigid than international standards, causing small farmers to suffer. It has been discussed regularly since then.
  • The complaint: several developing countries say that the proliferation of standards that are set without consultation poses a challenge for small economies. They say private standards often conflict with those set by governments or international organizations and meeting them also raises costs.
  • The counter argument is that exporters can improve their sales by meeting private sector standards.


Special treatment for developing countries > back to top

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 technical assistance when they face requirements they find difficult to meet (see document G/SPS/33/Rev.1).

The discussion includes the question of technical assistance to help countries meet standards.

To some extent the issue is related to “equivalence” — accepting that alternative methods of testing and alternative measures can provide a level of protection that is equivalent to methods used in the importing country.


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When talking can produce results

The SPS Committee’s role as an information clearing house has helped defuse some disputes. A couple of examples:

Cinnamon. The committee helped Sri Lanka and the EU sort out a problem when the EU started to block imports of Sri Lankan cinnamon treated with sulphur dioxide. The reason was because no Codex standard existed on this, even though it did for ginger. The committee asked Codex to move quickly to develop a standard, and the EU agreed to allow imports of cinnamon from Sri Lanka cinnamon on the new Codex standard.

Aflatoxin. The EU’s tightened regulations on aflatoxin (a cancer-causing substance produced by mould) contaminating a number of products. Discussion in the SPS Committee and in Brussels led to the EU modifying the proposed regulation and providing technical assistance for some developing country exporters.

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