WTO News Item, 12 October 2006
Clouds overhanging Sri Lanka’s cinnamon exports to the EU are dissipating thanks to bilateral talks and the swift approval of new international standards, the WTO committee handling food safety and animal and plant health heard in its 11-12 October 2006 meeting. But some developing countries continued to be concerned about EU “novel food” regulations, and several continued to press for a discussion on private sector standards.
These were among a wide range of topics discussed in almost four days of informal (from 9 October) and formal meetings of the Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS) Committee. As usual, the meetings also covered the latest situation on BSE, avian influenza, foot and mouth disease and other trade concerns. And the US explained its revised regulations on pesticide residues, which has caused a flood of new notifications. A handful of topics — like Sri Lanka’s cinnamon — were reported as resolved, although good tidings hang in the balance for Chinese wooden Christmas trees.
Several of these specific trade concerns are also related to “regionalization” — recognizing disease situations in regions within countries instead of taking measures affecting whole countries. This is a subject members continued to discuss in its own right. Some specific concerns were also raised in this year’s transitional review under China’s membership agreement.
The committee also considered actions to take following the latest review of the of the SPS Agreement, including improving transparency.
Specific trade concerns: resolved
Cinnamon: Sri Lanka welcomed the resolution of its concern about an EU restriction on sulphur dioxide (SO2) in cinnamon. The EU did not permit SO2 residues in cinnamon even though it allowed minimal levels in other spices. The issue arose partly because Codex Alimentarius, the WHO-FAO body where countries negotiate standards for food safety, did not have a standard for SO2 residues in cinnamon. In July, Codex approved a new standard (see document G/SPS/GEN/716) and Sri Lanka praised the EU for “excellent cooperation” in finding a solution, partly through administrative means. In February the EU offered to help Sri Lanka apply for approval for a standard and to seek support from the European Parliament and the member states.)
Others: Meanwhile, the US and Chile also reported a solution to a US complaint about a Chilean restriction on fruit imports, and the EU said it is pleased that several important markets in “Asia, the Mediterranean and the Middle East” lifted restrictions on live birds, meat, meat products and other derivatives . The restrictions were originally imposed because of avian influenza, and the EU complained that some other countries have still not removed the restrictions.
Specific trade concerns: unresolved
EU novel food regulation: Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia, Brazil and the Philippines continued to register their concern about the EU’s draft amendment of its novel food regulation, due to take effect in 2007 (See report of March 2006 meeting). They welcomed the opportunity the EU has given for those who are interested to comment, and repeated their argument that the regulation could hamper poverty eradication by blocking exports of traditional and biodiverse products that were not on the EU market before 1997. They argued that providing scientific analysis of the products’ safety would be expensive. The EU denied it is being protectionist, saying it is the world’s largest importer of fruit and vegetables but must ensure that food products are safe for consumers. It called for more data from the complaining countries to help it revise the draft regulation.
Christmas trees: China repeated its concern about a US restriction but added that bilateral consultations are “quite positive” and jokingly hoped for joy by Christmas Eve. The US defended its measures but shared the assessment of progress. (See June meeting ) A number of other new and unresolved issues were also discussed (see P.S. below)
China’s transitional review
The US and EU asked questions about a number of Chinese measures related to beef and BSE, zero-tolerance for some pathogens such as salmonella, avian flu, regulatory transparency, fruit packaging, fruit fly, food contact materials, dioxin, etc. Many of these asked whether China had performed a risk assessment or whether the measures were based on science.
China defended its measures and thanked the EU for stating that it did not expect immediate answers to its questions since they had only just been circulated.
The transitional reviews were agreed as part of China’s membership agreement.
US pesticide residues. In the past month almost 60 US notifications (including additions to existing notifications) have landed on members’ desks. The vast majority deal with maximum permitted residues levels for various pesticides in various products, and the US told WTO members to expect the flood to continue over the coming months as almost 10,000 accepted tolerances are involved (9,637 to be exact). The reason is a pesticide reassessment programme. A key part of this was notified to the WTO in document G/SPS/N/USA/1391 of 28 August 2006, on procedural regulations for the Environmental Protection Agency to review the registration of pesticides.
(The US document says this new rule “establishes procedures for conducting the Agency’s new pesticide registration review program mandated by US federal law. Under this rule, EPA will review existing pesticide registrations on a regular basis to determine whether they continue to meet the statutory standard for registration. EPA’s new registration review program will begin in the fall of 2006. This rule provides for the establishment of pesticide cases for review, the scheduling of reviews of all registered pesticides, the initiation, completion and documentation of reviews, and associated public participation procedures.”)
Other updates: These included information from the US on BSE, the EU on bluetongue and Avian flu, Brazil on foot and mouth and Newcastle diseases and several Latin American members on their new institutional arrangements.
Private and commercial standards
The SPS Committee generally deals with standards set by international standards-setting bodies and those imposed by governments. But some developing countries have started to raise the question of standards set by the private sector, such as supermarket chains. This issue was first raised in June 2005 by St Vincent and the Grenadines because of private standards for bananas. An information session was held earlier in the week, with presentations from UNCTAD and EurepGAP, a private sector body.
St Vincent and the Grenadines called for the committee to continue to discuss this because private standards are often more rigid than international standards, causing small farmers to suffer. Egypt, Argentina, Indonesia, South Africa, Belize, Cuba, Dominica, and Kenya broadly supported. The chairperson suggested members supply concrete examples for the debate.
(The relevant provision is Article 13 of the SPS Agreement)
The key concept here is recognition that an exporting region (part of a country or a border-straddling zone) is disease-free or pest-free (or has a lower incidence). It is often raised under a specific trade concern as well as being discussed as a subject in its own right. A group of members have proposed that the SPS Committee develop guidelines to implement this concept without too much delay, but others have opposed this approach. At this meeting, they simply reported that they are making progress in their discussions with each other. The chairperson also reported on an informal meeting earlier in the week. (The issues are outlined in a Secretariat paper, G/SPS/GEN/640/Rev.1. See also February news item)
Special and differential treatment
This was the subject of another informal consultation, and the chairperson reported on the discussion, which focused on evaluating technical assistance. Cuba and Kenya said they want continued discussion on special and differential treatment proposals already on the table.
After the second review
In 2005, the SPS Committee completed its second review of the implementation of the agreement. A lengthy list of proposals following on from that review are on the table. Members discussed which of these to take up as priorities and will return to the question in March. In the meantime, some work on transparency such as preparing a questionnaire for national enquiry points will proceed.
Tentatively, these are the dates for next year’s formal meetings (with informals earlier in the week, the precise dates still being discussed)
These are some of the trade issues or concerns discussed in the meeting.