WTO News Item, 1–2 February 2006
The SPS Committee, which deals with food safety and animal and plant health, continued, in its February 2006 meeting, to grapple with differing views on how to recognize regions (and not whole countries) as being free from disease or pests — an obligation in the WTO agreement.
Almost five days of informal and formal meetings also discussed special treatment for developing countries, China 's transitional review for 2005, the latest situation on avian influenza, mad cow disease, foot and mouth disease, sulphur dioxide in cinnamon and other trade concerns, several of these also related to “regionalization”.
Tension emerged between transparency and the measures countries impose. Some members complained that they were being penalized for notifying the occurrence of disease or pests, because this led to some other countries restricting their products unreasonably.
The meeting began on 24 October 2005 and was suspended after a few essential agenda items had been discussed, because of the heavy workload before the December ministerial conference in Hong Kong . The rest of the meeting was rescheduled for 1–2 February 2006.
The key concept here is recognition that an exporting region is “disease-free” or “pest-free” (or has a low incidence of pests or diseases). Among the diseases discussed under regionalization are regulars in the SPS Committee: bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, or mad cow disease), avian flu, foot and mouth disease, fruit fly, classical swine fever and others.
Almost two full days were spent discussing this subject in various formats. These included informal meetings in which 15 members described the way they confine outbreaks of disease or pests to zones or regions, several calling for guidelines to be discussed in the SPS Committee. Two key standards setting organizations — the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), and the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC) — also reported on the standards they have set up or are discussing.
Major differences remain between: countries that are keen for the “-free status” of their exporting regions to be recognized by importing countries quickly and without excessive red-tape, particularly after the standards-setting organizations have done so; and countries that take a more cautious approach to recognition.
A group of countries, mainly Latin American, said it wants to start drafting guidelines. Chile has proposed a form for countries to notify that they have recognized (or rejected) pest- or disease-free zone (G/SPS/W/181). Argentina has identified “critical points of delay” in attempts to get zones recognized (G/SPS/GEN/606), and Colombia has proposed a flow chart of necessary steps in an attempt to make recognition easier (G/SPS/GEN/611).
However, some other countries maintain that the committee should wait until the two international organizations have made progress on their work. For example, Japan wants to see the OIE and IPPC develop technical and administrative guidelines first and says WTO members should review these guidelines based on their experiences (G/SPS/GEN/605).
One example from the informal consultations illustrates the problem, at least as some countries see it. Canada described its handling of an outbreak of a highly pathenogenic strain of avian influenza in 2004 in British Columbia (see G/SPS/GEN/613). Some countries restricted imports of products from the region, while others acted against imports from all of Canada , even though the outbreak was limited to a small area separated from the rest of the country by the Rocky Mountains , Canada said.
Reporting to the formal meeting, Chairperson Gregg Young identified four themes from the informal discussions: the work of the international standards-setting bodies and the SPS Committee; procedures and guidelines for countries to recognize disease and pest conditions in each others' regions; predictability and avoiding “undue delays” in recognizing regions; and transparency. Some members said “confidence” should be added to the last point — the need for importing countries to have confidence in the systems in place in the exporting countries.
These will broadly be the focus of further work. Members differ, sometimes strongly, on some questions, such as whether proposed guidelines should only deal with steps that governments should take to consider others' regions, or whether to include deadlines in order to avoid “undue delays”.
Article 6 of the SPS Agreement requires governments to recognize regions within or straddling other countries as being safe sources (disease- or pest-free or with low incidence) for imports of food and animal and plant products, instead of basing their measures entirely on national boundaries. As with SPS standards in general, members do not have to follow the regionalization standards of the OIE or IPPC, but are encouraged to do so.
Exporting countries want to avoid import restrictions on products from their entire territories when outbreaks are confined to a region. The cost of establishing that regions are free from disease or pests can be high. “Many members noted the difficulty in committing to such long-term and sustained investments if recognition by their trading partners is unpredictable,” Mr Young said in his report on the informal discussions.
“From the importing members' perspective, risks associated with potential introduction of pest and diseases merited cautious approaches to recognition of pest- or disease-free status,” he reported. Bilateral recognition of regions' status can be made easier if trust and confidence can be built up through repeated contact and high quality veterinary and plant health inspection services, he said.
Several countries said regionalism is important for them both as importers and exporters.
The World Organization for Animal Health (OIE, see document G/SPS/GEN/625) and the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC, see document G/SPS/GEN/626) are working on regionalization. Countries can ask the OIE to inspect and recognize regional status for four diseases: foot and mouth disease, rinderpest, contagious bovine pleuropneumonia, and BSE.
Specific trade concerns
In addition to updates on the latest situation, the committee discussed whether over-reaction to avian flu might impede the global attempts to tackle the disease because countries would be discouraged from providing information.
Under several different agenda items and in documents, various members described the situation and their actions on both the serious and less serious (high and low pathenogenic) versions of avian flu.
Turkey updated the committee on its latest situation: 67 outbreaks of the more serious (the high pathenogenic H5N1 strain) in 31 provinces (out of a total of 81) almost entirely in backyards or small holdings and mainly along wild bird migration routes; 21 human cases, with four deaths, 12 recoveries and five still being treated; and no cases detected in large commercial farms. Turkey also described its actions: slaughter, quarantine and surveillance zones, cleaning and disinfecting, etc. The problem is global and must be tackled globally, Turkey said.
Colombia reported in detail on avian flu recently discovered in a municipality and the actions it has taken, explaining that this is a non-notifiable sub-type H9 (H9N2) and not the more dangerous H5 and H7 sub-types. However, the transparency has backfired because countries have imposed restrictions on its poultry products, Colombia complained. Canada argued a similar point about an outbreak of low pathenogenic flu, and complained about some countries' blanket ban on imports of poultry products from all or nearly all sources. The EU had a similar complaint.
The World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) supported these complaints. It also cited the case of import restrictions some countries imposed on products from Croatia after health authorities found high pathenogenic avian flu in wild swans that they had shot in order to monitor the situation in migrating birds. This unscientific response discourages transparency and could therefore impede global attempts to keep track of the disease, the OIE said.
Sri Lanka , the world's largest exporter, said EU restrictions on sulphur dioxide (SO2) in cinnamon block imports and hurt over 200,000 producers. It asked the EU to justify the ban when sulphur dioxide is allowed as a preservative, antioxidant and antibrowning agent for other spices such as ginger, and dried vegetables. Sri Lanka asked the EU to suspend the restriction until Codex can agree on a standard.
The EU Commission said Sri Lanka has a strong case. The problem arises because it has no standards for sulphur dioxide in cinnamon, the EU said. It offered to help Sri Lanka apply for approval for a standard and to seek support from the European Parliament and the member states. The EU said it is aware of the importance of cinnamon for large numbers of subsistence farmers and has no intention to hurt their interests. It is looking at a number of options and will deal with the question urgently.
The Secretariat of Codex Alimentarius, a joint FAO/WHO organization on food safety, noted that the Codex Committee on Food Additives and Contaminants will be meeting in April. It encouraged Sri Lanka to bring the cinnamon issue to the attention of that committee.
Foot and mouth disease.
Brazil told members about an outbreak in Mato Grosso do Sul on 1 October and the measures it has implemented. It assured its trading partners that all corrective measures are in place and asked members to limit their export restrictions to the affected state and to the relevant products. As a major beef exporter Brazil said it would ensure the beef it supplies continues to be safe. The EU said it is following the outbreak and stressed that it too applies “regionalization” (implementing measures based on affected regions rather than on political boundaries) and has done so with Brazil in the past. However, this outbreak is in a region authorized to export beef to the EU, so this region and two neighbouring ones are restricted. The EU will continue to import from other regions, it said. The EU added that it has identified weaknesses in traceability and transportation of cattle and urged Brazil to tighten up its practices.
New Zealand objected in strong terms to the length of time Australia is taking to accept its apples and the repeated demands for information for new risk assessments over fireblight. New Zealand Ambassador Crawford Falconer personally made the complaint, referring to his country's 80-year attempt to gain access. He accused Australia of doing everything to “delay, prevaricate and frankly to prevent our trade.” Supported by the US and EU, New Zealand said the recent WTO dispute ruling in the US-Japan apples case showed that mature apples do not spread fireblight. “Yes the countries involved are different, but the science is not,” Amb.Falconer said.
Australia said the latest risk assessment is open for comment until 30 March and encouraged all concerned to supply scientific information and to express any other concerns. It said it would continue to work bilaterally with New Zealand .
Also discussed were various concerns about a number of countries' measures on bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, or mad cow disease), a review of the EU's animal health policy and private sector standards. See full list below.
Special and differential treatment
A report to the General Council is due by the end of 2006. In the discussion that took place in October and in an informal session on 30 January, members differed on how to deal with this. The current focus is on proposals from groups of developing countries and work envisaged in the committee's 30 June 2005 report to the General Council (the 13-page G/SPS/35, which includes the proposals). Some of these developing countries said they plan to revise their proposals, but added that revision is difficult without counterproposals from other countries.
The committee's 2005 report (G/SPS/35) includes a number of points that members have agreed should be “initial elements” for their further discussion (paragraph 43). Several members urged the committee to move ahead with these practical actions to help developing countries.
On one question members did agree: they will postpone their review of the procedure to enhance transparency of special and differential treatment (G/SPS/33) until the first meeting in 2008. This procedure was agreed in October 2004; see news story
Discussions will continue.
China 's transitional review
The EU, US and Australia said bilateral cooperation with China on its SPS regime is working well. Among the EU's questions were some on China 's inspection system for establishments eligible for export. The US's numerous questions included queries about China's measures on BSE (whether China is following international standards for risky and low-risk materials) and fireblight (whether China's measures on apples, pears and plums follows the legal interpretation of the ruling in the US dispute with Japan over apples). China explained how it is applying its measures, with some new standards being studied by its experts. It said technical assistance and exchange of experiences will help. China replied to questions on its transparency by observing that it has notified a large number of measures. (Details in document G/SPS/38 of 1 November 2005 )
29–30 March 2006, with informal meetings on 27-28 March
These are some of the trade issues or concerns discussed in the meeting: