Dr David Jukes, The University of Reading, UK

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Food Law News - FAO / WHO / WTO / Codex - 2020

WTO News Items, 26 June 2020

WTO SPS COMMITTEE - Members discuss possible SPS Declaration for WTO’s 12th Ministerial Conference

Sanitary and Phytosanitary Declaration for the Twelfth WTO Ministerial Conference

A copy of this draft declaration discussed below is available on the site (click on image)

WTO members have discussed a possible Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) Declaration for the WTO’s 12th Ministerial Conference next year which would address the growing pressures on international agri-food production and trade. The proposal was discussed for the first time at a meeting of the SPS Committee held on 24-26 June, where members also reached an agreement in principle on a series of recommendations to improve how they deal with SPS standards, regulations and trade.

Proponents of the SPS Declaration for the 12th Ministerial Conference (GEN/1758/Rev.2) noted that the COVID-19 pandemic has underlined the importance of coordinated responses to global crises and of leveraging available regulatory tools such as the SPS Agreement in meeting these challenges in a science-based manner. Despite the postponement of the 12th Ministerial Conference, initially scheduled to be held in Nur-sultan (Kazakhstan) in June 2020, the proponents said they hoped to reach consensus on the initiative and welcomed the opportunity for an exchange of views.

Co-sponsors said a Ministerial Declaration would help promote food security and international trade and would establish a work programme, open to all members. This work programme would complement the efforts of the SPS Committee by addressing the challenges faced by many countries in the implementation of the SPS Agreement, including those related to biotechnology, the use of pesticides, climate change and environmental sustainability.

Considering that the work of the SPS Committee is fundamentally connected with issues being discussed at high political levels, such as disease transmission, pest control, sustainability and food security, it was stressed that a Ministerial Declaration would contribute by linking the Committee's more technical work with these larger issues and their effects on trade, strengthening the deliberative function of the WTO.

Some members said they were still considering their position but they saw merit in celebrating the 25th anniversary of the SPS Agreement by underlining the Agreement's connection to high-level concerns that could be addressed at ministerial level. In general, members were open to engagement on the Declaration.

Fifth Review

Members achieved a milestone by adopting the Report of the Fifth Review of the Operation and Implementation of the SPS Agreement [See: G/SPS/W/313/Rev.3] on an ad referendum basis. This means that the text will be definitely adopted if no objections are raised by 31 July 2020. While a few delegations initially expressed reservations on certain recommendations, members showed flexibility in reaching consensus on the report.

Every four years, WTO members evaluate how they are applying the SPS Agreement. The Fifth Review process started in March 2018 and was driven by members' proposals for new work by the committee relating to specific topics. 

The report includes recommendations on the following topics:

A large number of members called on the European Union to suspend for 12 months and review the processes under way for determining maximum residue levels (MRLs) for plant protection products due to the negative impact they may have on imports of fruits and vegetables from third countries.  They also called for the delayed entry into force of the MRL reductions planned for 2020 in response to the trade and economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

A group of 33 members presented a proposal stressing that under the current circumstances, the implementation of certain SPS measures that create additional restrictions or burdens on international trade in animals, plants or plant products constitutes a challenge that hampers worldwide economic recovery efforts, especially in developing countries.

The COVID-19 pandemic is the biggest global challenge in recent history and has forced WTO members to focus their efforts on protecting people's lives, ensuring public health and guaranteeing food security for their populations, these members stressed.

The EU, which is the largest common market in the world and the largest importer of fruit and vegetables, said in its response that the standards applied are always based on scientific studies addressing the potential risk to consumer health. The EU reiterated that all MRL-related processes are notified to WTO members with sufficient time for their food business operators to prepare for the new requirements that will result from the modification of existing standards. The EU committed to engage in addressing the consequences of the pandemic, it said.

Members also participated in an information-sharing session on COVID-19, where they stressed the importance of ensuring coordinated responses to global crises and ensuring that trade in agricultural and food products is not unduly restricted. The extensive work done by the WTO Secretariat in compiling SPS measures implemented since the start of the pandemic was commended. More information about that session is available here.

New STCs

The SPS Committee discussed a range of measures regarding food safety and animal and plant health, with many exporting countries raising concerns about import requirements that they said are more stringent than necessary. Twenty-nine STCs were addressed, of which 17 were discussed for the first time. A large number of WTO members and observers contributed to the discussions. The new STCs were the following:

Both new and previously raised issues can be found in the new password protected eAgenda system for members, which allows members to submit agenda items, statements and STCs online, and in the public SPS Information Management System [See: SPS IMS].

Next meeting 

The SPS Committee is scheduled to hold its next meeting on 5-6 November 2020, preceded by an informal meeting.

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