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Trade access: Critical need to get sanitary/phytosanitary measures right

Governments need to let science drive trade access decisions regarding safety, and then let the marketplace determine via consumer choice which production practices or genetic traits are deemed acceptable.

Feeding the world in the most sustainable and affordable way requires trade. Access to a global food supply has dramatically increased the choice and variety of food available to all consumers – from the neediest to the most affluent. 

Historically quotas and tariffs have been the primary trade access hurdles, but today, too often, the sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) and technical barriers to trade (TBT) are the biggest hurdles.  For ‘total access,’ negotiators need to get the SPS and TBT measures right.

Consumers rightfully demand safe food, but often now politicians seek to erect barriers to inhibit trade by utilizing SPS parameters, under the umbrella of safety, to limit or block imports. Barriers often include production practices, genetic traits or animal disease status.  The WTO SPS agreements provide for ensuring that appropriate safety measures can be enacted, yet, today, too often, the barriers are beyond appropriate and purely protective.

When one looks to human food safety, the research data to demonstrate human food safety, and thus the regulatory submission to garner an approval, is normally the same ‘data package’ for regulatory submissions and approvals everywhere in the world.1  Further, the same ‘data package’ is utilized to establish an international safety standard. 

Recognizing that the data, and thus the standards, are normally the same, the SPS component of trade agreements needs to reflect today’s real-world situation and be updated and refined to grant acceptance of established science-based standards thus facilitating trade.  The regulatory approval processes and international standards establishment processes can take from one to five or more years, and in today’s global trade situation, this extended time horizon usually means trade barriers due to new product or trait approvals.

SPS path forward 

The following builds upon and heavily paraphrases comments by the Food & Agriculture Export Alliance (FAEA) that were submitted as part of its North American Free Trade Agreement comments.  These proposed refinements to the current SPS approach -- specifically regarding food safety and animal diseases including ‘pathogens, residues, plant genetic traits, diseases and pests’ -- are sought for inclusion in all bilateral and multilateral trade agreement negotiations to facilitate trade:2

1.       Recognition of and acceptance of international standards, guidelines and codes of practice as established by Codex Alimentarius Commission (Codex), the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) and the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC).

2.         When international standards do not exist, recognition of the exporting country’s standards and controls that were established through governmental regulatory science-based risk assessment.

      a. The science-based risk assessment should be aligned with those criteria defined in:
               - The “Environmental Health Criteria 240, Principles and Methods for the Risk Assessment of Chemicals in Food.”
               - The Veterinary International Conference on Harmonization (VICH) as relates to animal / veterinary drugs / pharmaceuticals. 

3. Collaboration between the exporting and importing countries to establish import tolerances and / or registration of products based upon scientific principles to assure compliance with domestic food safety standards.

      a. Countries work to establish parallel, or as determined to be appropriate, cooperative regulatory review and establishment of safety standards. 

The recognition of and acceptance of safety standards and controls as above is to protect human, animal or plant life and health and to facilitate trade. These measures are designed to ensure safety while more efficiently facilitating trade.  Enforcement would be via bilateral agreement whereby each country agrees to proactively implement and advance these measures. 

The SPS agreement recognizes the sovereign rights of countries to ensure food safety and plant and animal health while also respecting science-based risk analysis principles that serve to ensure safe food and consumer confidence in the safety of what they are consuming. The sovereign rights detailed by the World Trade Organization (WTO) remain in place. 

The recognition of international standards, guidelines and codes of practice, and the recognition of national standards, are important to facilitate trade to meet the food needs of consumers.  SPS measures are needed and appropriate to protect human, animal or plant life and health. 

Looking for ‘total access,’ governments need to let science drive trade access decisions regarding safety, and then let the marketplace determine via consumer choice which production practices or genetic traits are deemed acceptable.  The increasing demand for food animal protein and plant products, and the need to source such food globally, necessitates that refinements are made to the current SPS approach so that measures are in place to enhance trade and not inhibit trade.    


1.       Note:  Sometimes there are slight differences amongst country regulatory criteria as relates to data requirements and standards calculations.       

2.       Source credit:  The above points build upon the June 9, 2017 comments submitted by the Food and Agriculture Export Alliance (FAEA) as part of “Request for Comments on Negotiating Objectives Regarding Modernization of the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico”.

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