The SPS Agreement: WTO Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures

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Although import duties on many agricultural products have been dropped or waived as part of preferential trading agreements, farmers in developing countries are facing new challenges to selling their products around the world. Technical requirements, particularly for the hygiene and safety of products, have become one of the greatest barriers to trade for many producers. The World Trade Organization (WTO) Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (the SPS Agreement) aims to provide the balance between the right of governments to protect food safety, plant and animal health, and prevent these sanitary and phytosanitary measures from being unjustified trade barriers.

Established by the SPS Agreement to oversee its implementation, the SPS Committee has reviewed the operation and implementation of the agreement three times since it took effect in 1995. (1) A report of the third review makes it clear that the SPS Agreement has provided an effective framework of rules regarding trade measures taken to protect food safety, plant and animal health. Many governments have enshrined key obligations of the SPS Agreement in their national regulations. They first consider whether the use of one of the relevant international standards (2) could provide the level of health protection the country considers appropriate and, if not, will base their requirement on an assessment of the health risks involved with the trade of the product. The SPS Committee has developed guidelines to assist governments in ensuring a consistent approach in determining their acceptable risk levels and in selecting the measures to achieve these. (3)

The SPS Committee has also developed guidelines to assist governments implement 'equivalence'--the recognition that different methods of production or treatment by another country may provide the same level of health protection as that resulting from the importing country's measures. (4) A more recent decision by the committee provides guidelines for adapting requirements in light of the pest or disease status of the producing region, which may differ from that of other parts of the same country. (5)

The SPS Committee meets three times a year offering an opportunity for WTO members to raise specific trade concerns regarding the SPS requirements of trading partners. Since 1995, 340 specific trade concerns have been raised in the SPS Committee (see figures 1 and 2). Animal health issues include zoonoses (such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE). Developing countries have been increasingly active in using the SPS Committee as a venue for addressing specific trade problems, although unfortunately few least developed countries (LDCs) participate actively (see figure 2).

Advance information regarding changes to the SPS requirements of importing countries is critical in order for producers to prepare their products for export. The SPS Agreement requires proposed changes to SPS requirements be notified to WTO at a time when it is still possible to accept comments from trading partners and modify the requirements before they are adopted. An exception permits governments to impose SPS measures immediately in response to an urgent situation, but the emergency measure must be temporary and comments from trading partners must be considered when revising the temporary measure. The SPS Committee has agreed on procedures and formats for ensuring transparency, which are regularly reviewed at special meetings and revised. (6)

By the end of 2009, WTO members had submitted 7,315 regular and 1,163 emergency SPS notifications. Although the majority of notifications were submitted by developed countries, notifications from developing countries had increased steadily to 47% of the total by the end of 2009. Notifications from LDCs are very few, and there is concern that these countries are also not systematically examining the notifications from other countries regarding changes that may affect their exports. …