WTO News Item, 5 November 2004
Developing countries' ability to respond to importing countries' sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) measures has been enhanced by a decision approved by WTO members, meeting as the SPS Committee on 27–28 October 2004.
Also discussed were: over 30 specific trade issues (including information statements), measures to control Ocratoxin A in soluble coffee in EU countries, deviation from international standards on solid wood packing, and a number of old regulars — mad cow disease, foot-and-mouth disease, and avian flu; China's transitional review mechanism, “regionalization” (recognizing specific regions and their freedom from disease or pest) and transparency (improving notification and related issues).
Special and differential treatment
The decision on special treatment (document G/SPS/33 of 2 November 2004 : See http://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news04_e/sps33_e.doc) strengthens importing countries' commitments to provide an opportunity for exporting developing countries to seek revisions or ask for technical assistance when new or revised measures affecting imports are proposed or introduced. Whatever additional “special and differential treatment” is then agreed will be publicized as an supplement (or “addendum”) to the document that originally announced the new measure.
The outcome could take a number of forms. The new or proposed measure could be revised for imports from all WTO members. The importing country could provide technical assistance to the exporting developing country to help it meet the new requirements. Special treatment could be given to exports from developing countries, such as a longer period to adjust. Or the outcome could be a combination of these.
The decision applies to all areas covered by the WTO's SPS agreement — food safety, and animal and plant health. Final approval was delayed for a year and a half after it was agreed in principle at the 1–3 April 2003 meeting.
The main difficulty was in agreeing the details of how such a procedure would work. Many developing countries did not want special treatment to depend entirely on their prompt reactions to new or revised measures. At the same time, developed countries said they needed to respond to concerns raised by the poorer exporting countries in order to make the special treatment suitable. Final approval was made possible following consultations between countries taking leading positions on either side of the debate.
The decision includes an eight-step procedure that spells out the kind of information that should be included when a new decision is proposed, for example the products covered, the text of the proposed decision, and the geographical areas affected. It prescribes a period for comment of 60 days or more if the measure does not make trade easier, along with procedures for ensuring the proposed measure is adequately publicized.
The procedure then details how an exporting country should then be able to seek consultations, how those consultations should be conducted, what the possible outcomes might be, and how the results would be publicized. It also describes procedures for countries facing difficulties after a measure has been introduced, including if there had been little or no time for comment. Any special treatment given to developing countries should be applied equally to all countries, the decision says.
Specific trade concerns
Over 30 specific trade issues (including information statements) were raised at this meeting. Concerns over avian influenza, foot and mouth disease restrictions and BSE (“mad cow disease”) accounted for most of these concerns along with the following three items:
Wood packing. Some members, notably Australia and the EU, are proposing to deviate from the International Plant Protection Convention's standard for wood pallets, for example by requiring that the bark be removed from the wood used to make the pallets. Because wood packing is used extensively in trade, a number of countries object to any deviations from the international standard, noting the serious difficulties this could create for trade in all kinds of products. The US estimated that some $40bn of trade with the EU alone could be disrupted.
Ochratoxin A. Germany set maximum levels for ochratoxin A, a mycotoxin contaminant, in coffee a year ago, prompting complaints from coffee exporting countries such as Colombia, Papua New Guinea, Nicaragua, Brazil, Cuba, India, Guatemala, Mexico, Ecuador, Bolivia, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Costa Rica and Peru. Partly in response to these concerns, the EU Commission has undertaken the development of EU-wide maximum levels for mycotoxins, including Ochratoxin A, in various products. A number of exporting countries raised concerns about the levels that the EU was proposing for coffee and infant food. But the EU Commission noted that the proposed EU-wide standards would establish levels consistent with the scientific knowledge and replace the higher national requirements curently imposed by some EU member states.
India 's notifications: A number of countries have raised concerns about what they consider to be India 's poor record on notifying new measures and certain specific measures such as to control avain influenza, and import conditions on apples and almonds. India took note of members' concerns and assured them that it attached importance to its transparency obligations.
China 's transitional review mechanism
This is an annual requirement for a period and for a number of subjects under China 's membership agreement. The US, EU and Chinese Taipei had previously circulated some questions. They and Australia broadly praised China 's efforts in meeting its obligations and for clarifying a number of questions in bilateral meetings between China and some of them. Several had further questions and looked forward to further discussions. (Details can be found in the SPS Committee's report to the Goods Council on the review, in document G/SPS/34 of 2 November 2004 .)
“Regionalization” has to do with recognizing that a region (as distinct from a country) is free from certain pests or diseases that may exist in other parts of a country or group of countries. “Region” can mean anything from a small distinct area within a country to an area that spans parts of several countries or simply spans several countries. It comes under Art.6 of the SPS Agreement, which requires members to adapt their import requirements to the pest- or disease-free status of the region where the product originates. The article also requires members to cooperate with each other in establishing what the situation is, in a region.
Developing countries in particular complain that they spend a lot of time and money eradicating diseases and pests from relevant regions, obtain disease/pest-free status from international organizations such as the OIE (the World Organization for Animal Health) and IPPC (International Plant Protection Convention), and then face difficulty obtaining recognition from importing countries. The EU, which has dealt with such problems as outbreaks of foot-and-mouth in parts of some of its member states, complains that other WTO members frequently fail to recognize that a problem can be regional rather than national or across the entire EU (a complaint raised again in the formal meeting).
Discussions continued but there was not yet agreement as to whether the committee should seek to develop procedural guidelines for recognizing regionalization, or whether this should be the sole responsibility of the OIE and IPPC. The issue remains on the agenda for future meetings.
Review of the agreement
Several members suggested that the Secretariat's background document (G/SPS/GEN/510 - See http://docsonline.wto.org/DDFDocuments/t/G/SPS/GEN510.doc) should be the basis for the final report due in June 2005. Among the issues discussed in an informal meeting as well as the formal meeting were: transparency, members' involvement in the work of standard setting bodies, greater use of the chairman's “good offices” and of discussions in the committee for settling disputes, special and differential treatment, regionalization, good regulatory practice and undue delays in control, inspection and approval procedures.
7–8 March 2005, but these dates could change.