WTO News Item, 28 June 2007
Argentina, supported by a number of developing countries, urged governments to agree on international standards for pesticide residues in food, and to apply those standards or justify tougher requirements by supplying scientific evidence. The call was made in the 27–28 June meeting of the Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) Measures Committee, which deals with food safety and animal and plant health and safety.
Argentina and its allies said importing countries have announced a number of new maximum residue levels for pesticides, many either setting maximum levels that are more restrictive than internationally agreed standards, or where no standards have been set up.
Argentina 's paper was circulated immediately before the meeting (and only in Spanish). Several developed countries asked for more time to study the proposals.
Among the other issues discussed were Egyptian proposals to strengthen the special treatment given to developing countries, the on-going complaint from developing countries about private sector standards, and a number of specific trade concerns — eight new, five raised before, one welcoming a “positive” notification, and four reported as resolved.
Meanwhile, New Zealand reported briefly that it is still consulting with a group of members and is close to agreement on a proposal for dealing with “regionalization”. 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). Failure to recognized that regions are free from pest or disease is often raised as a specific trade concern as well as being discussed as a subject in its own right. The consultations will continue in October, when the SPS Committee will meet next.
The developing countries led by Argentina (document G/SPS/W/211 of 26 June) complained that these new maximum pesticide residue levels impede trade. They urged the international standard-setting body, the joint FAO-WHO Codex Alimentarius Commission on food safety, to set more standards, and the importing countries to use these international standards or to provide scientific evidence to support any stricter requirements.
Argentina said that out of 345 principal pesticide substances registered in Argentina , only about 32% have maximum residue levels agreed in Codex. It and the other developing countries complained that some requirements are so low they are at the limits of the ability to detect residues. Supporting Argentina were: Chile , Cuba , Brazil , Pakistan , Costa Rica , Ecuador and Paraguay .
(In recent months, about one third of all SPS notifications from WTO member governments have been about new or revised pesticide requirements — about 37 out of 98 notifications in May 2007, and 23 out of 78 in April refer to “pesticide” — although not necessarily all of these are the cause of the complaints. See the Secretariat's monthly compilations G/SPS/GEN/780 and G/SPS/GEN/776)
Codex said it lacks resources but its member governments can ask for the development of new standards to be accelerated and urged WTO members to provide the scientific data to allow the discussions to take place.
The EU agreed and urged governments to push the FAO and WHO to provide more resources for Codex. Japan , the EU, New Zealand and Australia said they would join the discussion when they have had time to study Argentina 's paper.
Private sector standards
A workshop on private and commercial standards was organized by the WTO and UNCTAD on Monday 25 June (see details) These are standards set by the private sector, such as supermarket chains, or “EurepGap” — “good agricultural practices” or GAP, set by the Euro-Retailer Produce Working Group, Eurep. Also presented were approaches of the retailer-driven Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) and the food safety management system standard “ISO 22000” from the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).
Following up in the formal SPS Committee meeting, developing countries picked up three themes:
Among the developing countries speaking in the meeting were: Egypt , Pakistan , Ecuador , Brazil , Cuba , Belize , Chile , Venezuela , Argentina , Kenya , South Africa , Domican Rep, Mexico , Colombia , China , Bolivia , Costa Rica , Peru , Rwanda .
The EU said it also hears a lot of complaints from within its member states, but it urged members to focus on the positive aspects as well. For example, with private sector standards, it is the largest importer of food and vegetables, with a large share ($14bn out of $17bn) coming from developing countries. It said that without any dispute ruling to provide legal interpretation it remains unclear whether the SPS Agreement obliges governments to take responsibility for private standards. Therefore members should focus on the costs of complying with the standards and ways to deal with this, such as through aid to help suppliers meet the requirements, the EU said.
Other developing countries ( Japan , New Zealand , Australia , Canada and the US ) were non-committal, preferring to ask questions or comment on the number of forums looking at this topic.
This issue takes the SPS Committee into comparatively new territory — the committee generally deals with standards set by international standards-setting bodies and those imposed by governments. Private sector standards were first raised two years ago in June 2005 by St Vincent and the Grenadines , because of private standards for bananas. St Vincent and the Grenadines complained that private standards are often more rigid than international standards, causing small farmers to suffer.
Special treatment for developing countries
This was discussed in an informal meeting on 26 June. For the record, the chairperson reported that the discussion had focused on two proposals from Egypt .
One would amend Article 10.1 of the SPS Agreement to tighten the obligations to provide “special and differential treatment” for developing countries. Some countries supported this, while others said they oppose amending the agreement, preferring an authoritative interpretation of the provision (which can come from the General Council or a Ministerial Conference), the chairperson reported.
Egypt has also proposed amending G/SPS/33, a 2004 committee decision to make special treatment given to developing countries more transparent. Because the proposal was circulated on the day of the discussion, members asked for more time to consider it.
Specific trade concerns: resolved
Specific trade concerns: unresolved
Among the issues that have been raised before and remain unresolved
A number of other new and unresolved issues were also discussed (see P.S. below)
Information on activities
A number of countries reported on their recent activities, including China on its actions to deal with recent concerns about the safety of some of its food exports.
Canada joined other countries in proposing that members voluntarily notify new or revised measures that comply with international standards even though they are only legally required to notify measures that are different from international norms. Some members supported this, but a few were concerned that the proposal might create more difficulties for developing countries. Members will continue to consult on this.
On 15-16 October 2007, a special SPS workshop will focus on the implementation of the transparency provisions of the SPS Agreement. The SPS Committee periodically holds special sessions to identify how to improve transparency, for example through members notifying their new requirements in advance and advanced through members evaluating each others' notifications. Officials responsible for notifying and responding to queries are invited to these workshops.
Chairperson: Mr Marinus PC Huige of the Netherlands (elected at the start of this meeting)
These dates (with informals earlier in the week) could still be changed: 17–18 October 2007
(Possible dates for 2008: 31 March-4 April, 22–27 June, 13–17 October)
These are some of the trade issues or concerns discussed in the meeting or information supplied to the meeting.
Information from members: