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close this bookFood, Nutrition and Agriculture - 11- Edible Fats and Oils (FAO - FPND - FAO, 1994)
close this folderUnderstanding the GATT agreement on the application of sanitary and phytosanitary measures1
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View the documentThe agreement
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The agreement

All countries maintain measures to ensure that food is safe for consumers and to prevent the spread of pests or diseases among animals and plants. These sanitary and phytosanitary measures can take many forms, such as requiring products to come from a disease-free area, inspection of products, specific treatment or processing of products, setting allowable maximum levels of pesticide residues or permitting the use of only certain additives in food. Sanitary (human and animal health) and phytosanitary (plant health) measures are applied to domestically produced food or local animal and plant diseases, as well as to products coming from other countries.

Sanitary and phytosanitary measures, by their very nature, may result in restrictions on trade. All governments accept the fact that some trade restrictions are necessary and appropriate in order to ensure food safety and animal and plant health protection, and this is also reflected in existing GATT rules. But governments are sometimes pressed to go beyond what is needed for health protection and to use sanitary and phytosanitary restrictions as a way of shielding domestic producers from economic competition. Such pressure is likely to increase as the use of other trade barriers is reduced as a result of the Uruguay Round agreements. A sanitary or phytosanitary restriction that is not required for valid health reasons can be a very effective protectionist device and, because of its technical complexity, a particularly deceptive and difficult barrier to challenge.

The Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures builds on existing GATT rules to check the use of unjustified sanitary and phytosanitary measures for the purpose of trade protection. The basic aim of the SPS Agreement is to maintain the sovereign right of any government to provide the level of health protection it deems appropriate, but to ensure that these sovereign rights are not misused for protectionist purposes and do not result in unnecessary barriers to international trade.

The SPS Agreement will increase the transparency of sanitary and phytosanitary measures. Countries will need to establish SPS measures oh the basis of an appropriate assessment of the actual risks involved and, if requested, to make known what factors they took into consideration, the assessment procedures they used and the level of risk they determined to be acceptable. Although many governments already use risk assessment in their management of food safety and animal and plant health, the SPS Agreement encourages the wider use of systematic risk assessment among all WTO member governments and for all relevant products.

Governments will be required to notify other countries of their sanitary and phytosanitary requirements that restrict trade and to set up inquiry points to respond to requests for more information. They also need to open to scrutiny how they apply their food safety and animal and plant health regulations. The systematic communication of information and exchange of experiences among the WTO member governments will provide a better basis for national standards. Such increased transparency will also protect the interests of consumers as well as trading partners from hidden protectionism through unnecessary technical requirements.

The SPS Agreement, while permitting governments to maintain appropriate sanitary and phytosanitary protection, will reduce possible arbitrariness of decisions and encourage consistent decision-making. It requires that sanitary and phytosanitary measures be necessary for the protection of food safety and animal and plant health. In particular, the agreement clarifies which factors should be taken into account in the assessment of risk. Measures to ensure food safety and to protect the health of animals and plants should be based as far as possible on the analysis and assessment of objective and accurate scientific data.

The SPS Agreement encourages governments to establish national sanitary and phytosanitary measures consistent with international standards, guidelines and recommendations, where these exist. This process is often referred to as "harmonization". GATT itself does not develop such standards nor will WTO, but most of GATT's member governments participate in the development of these standards in other international bodies. Standards are developed by leading scientists in the field and government experts on health protection and are subject to international scrutiny and review.

International standards are often higher than the national requirements of many countries, including developed countries. However, the SPS Agreement explicitly permits governments to choose not to use these international standards. Should their national requirements result in a greater restriction of trade, they may be asked to provide a scientific justification, demonstrating that the relevant international standard would not result in the level of health protection the country considered appropriate.

Because of differences in climate, existing pests or diseases and food safety conditions, it is not always appropriate to impose the same sanitary and phytosanitary requirements on food or animal or plant products from different countries. Therefore, the SPS Agreement acknowledges that sanitary and phytosanitary measures may sometimes vary depending on the country of origin of the food or animal or plant product concerned. The agreement will, however, check unjustified discrimination in the use of sanitary and phytosanitary measures, whether in favour of domestic producers or among foreign suppliers.

Moreover, in many instances an acceptable level of risk can be achieved in multiple ways. In deciding among alternative measures that provide the same level of food safety or animal and plant health, governments should select those that are not more trade restrictive than required to meet their health objectives, if the measures are technically and economically feasible. This should ensure that the appropriate level of health protection is maintained while providing the greatest quantity and variety of safe foodstuffs for consumers, the highest availability of safe inputs for producers and healthy economic competition.

A special committee will be established within WTO as a forum for the exchange of information among member governments on all aspects related to the implementation of the SPS Agreement. The SPS Committee will review compliance with the agreement, discuss matters that have potential trade impact and maintain close cooperation with the appropriate technical organizations. In trade disputes regarding sanitary or phytosanitary measures, the WTO dispute settlement procedures will be used, and advice from appropriate scientific experts can be sought.