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    Technical Assistance for SPS Measures: Protect Health, Not Trade


    © International Trade Centre, International Trade Forum - Issue 3/2002 

    Barriers to international commerce - particularly technical regulations and sanitary and phytosanitary measures - are a key concern of developing countries. A joint ITC/Commonwealth Secretariat study uncovers what's on the minds of exporters, government and standards experts in six developing countries.

    Many countries of the South want to earn more from exporting both processed and fresh agricultural products. That means meeting the technical regulations and sanitary and phytosanitary measures in export markets. But are these regulations being used to limit access to developed country markets for fresh and processed agricultural exports, as a number of developing countries fear? What sort of action is needed and what sort of technical assistance should donors be giving to help countries meet the technical requirements set?

    Under the World Trade Organization (WTO) Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS) to protect human, animal and plant life or health and the Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT), member countries need to base their technical regulations and SPS measures on "international standards" if they limit the imports from other countries.

    The requirement is designed to provide a measure of uniformity in the way imports are treated. Governments are understandably concerned about health risks, which can range from salmonella poisoning to foot-and-mouth disease or sugar-plant pests. At the same time, the agreements recognize that meeting international standards may be a burden for cash-strapped, resource-short parts of the world. So under the agreements, countries also agree to "facilitate the provision of technical assistance to developing countries" to help them meet standards.

    What is the situation in developing countries with regard to SPS, TBT and the aid they are supposed to be receiving? What are their priorities for technical assistance? We now have some answers, thanks to a study carried out by ITC with the Commonwealth Secretariat in six developing countries.

    The study investigated whether these countries are participating in the development of international standards; how they are implementing the TBT and SPS Agreements; and what problems they face with regard to exporting.

    Exports from many developing countries, especially least developed countries, are likely to be concerned by the SPS Agreement more than the TBT Agreement - particularly countries with a limited industrial base.

    All face barriers 

    All of the case study countries - Jamaica, Kenya, Malaysia, Mauritius, Namibia and Uganda - encounter sanitary or phytosanitary barriers to their exports.

    The greatest problem for them is that importing countries often impose SPS requirements that are stricter than the international norm. For example, the European Union has special requirements concerning meat processing plants and Norway imposes tough controls against salmonella.

    However, the study found that the developing countries have hardly ever raised these concerns in the WTO's SPS Committee. If they did take action, it was through bilateral negotiations.

    Although there are examples where this strategy was successful, the study uncovered general frustration about the time taken for the importing country to respond or attend to the issue and revise any offending measures.

    In control 

    It would be simplistic, however, to say that developing countries are not capable of meeting SPS measures. The study found that countries do maintain effective SPS control over some of the most immediate and important health risks - for example, Mauritius has measures to exclude sugar-cane pests from the country and Namibia to keep out foot-and-mouth disease.

    The study found that "when SPS or TBT requirements threaten their economic interests, the countries are willing and able to take action". Jamaica, one of the developing countries studied, showed the kind of innovative solution that exporting countries find to satisfy the requirements of importers, particularly when the importing country is prepared to support the effort to meet its standards.

    In Jamaica, the Govern-ment took decisive action to address problems with exports to the United States relating to pesticide residues in callaloo and yam, and insect pests on hot peppers. Indigenous vegetables and fish account for 27% of Jamaica's agricultural and food exports, and these "non-traditional" products are exported almost exclusively to the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada. The Jamaican Government opened bilateral talks with US authorities and established national task forces to identify and implement the required action at the national level.

    To regain access to the United States market for ackee (from which around 50,000 people are thought to gain their living), Jamaican authorities had to implement a US-approved system of prior approval and regulation of ackee processors. To date, four processors have been approved. For exports of fresh produce to the United States, Jamaica operates a pre-clearance programme funded initially by the US Agency for International Development. It is now financed by a per-box levy on exports. "The pre-clearance programme confers a significant competitive advantage on Jamaica over its regional competitors," the case study noted. "Once a consignment has been pre-cleared, exporters can be confident it will be admitted at the United States border."

    Import rules vary widely 

    Overall, the extent to which the six countries apply international standards as the basis of their own SPS measures for imports varies widely.

    Food standards 

    In countries that do have national food standards in place, Codex Alimentarius standards appear to be widely accepted and used. Mauritius, a substantial food importer with a well-developed food control system, uses all relevant Codex Alimentarius standards for its import standards. On the other hand, although Namibia is also a substantial food importer, it does not appear to have a well-developed food control system of its own and still relies on South Africa's standards.

    The extent to which countries apply international standards seems partly to reflect the level and composition of economic activity and the pattern of trade, the study suggests.

    Animal health standards 

    The standards and codes of the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) are usually the basis for national standards for animal health. However, several case study countries have found it difficult to comply with these standards to maintain effective animal health regimes.

    Early stages for plant health standards 

    The situation for plant health is somewhat different. International norms so far have tended to relate to definitions, methodologies and administrative procedures for carrying out risk analysis, rather than to control specific pest risks. The International Plant Protection Convention did not establish international standards until the mid-1990s and is still in the early stages of its standards-setting programme. One important international measure - from the perspective of obligations under the SPS Agreement - deals with appropriate pest risk analysis. But the case studies show that developing countries have difficulty in following this international norm, as their capacity to deal with SPS issues is limited.


    The study identifies three broad areas where developing countries have difficulty in implementing SPS obligations:

    1. Resources needed for obligations and rights
      • The human and financial resources of developing countries are extremely limited in comparison with what is required to meet their obligations and to take full advantage of their rights, especially for market access, under the SPS Agreement.
      • These constraints also limit the ability of developing countries to participate effectively in the setting of international standards. "Consequently, questions are raised about the extent to which international standards take proper account of the needs and special circumstances of developing countries."

    2. Complex conditions
      • Some developed countries, in addition to setting conditions for market access beyond prevailing international standards, vary their requirements over time in a way that increases the difficulty for developing countries to meet these conditions.
      • Some developed countries also impose conditions on imports from developing countries that are more stringent than those applied domestically.

    3. Domestic infrastructure
      • Administrative structures and legislative systems in developing countries can impose further constraints on their ability to comply with SPS measures.


    Fragmentary assistance 

    The case studies have led to the conclusion that much of the assistance provided by national and multilateral development assistance agencies over many years to build SPS- and TBT-related infrastructure has been fragmentary and has not been effectively integrated into national activities.

    "Much more assistance is needed, but it should be provided in a more cost-effective way," the study suggests. Furthermore, in addition to information dissemination, "there is a clear need for assistance to be problem-based, addressing the real capacity constraints that developing countries face".

    Getting on target 

    The study outlines a suggested approach for assistance that is better targeted:

    • Use new channels for dispute resolution. In many cases, countries lack the confidence to pursue complaints within the WTO dispute settlement system against major trading nations and blocs. ITC has played a part in helping developing countries settle such disputes through alternative channels. For example, an ITC buyers-sellers meeting held in Cape Town, South Africa identified the food safety requirements of South Africa as a major barrier to sales of canned tuna by a Mauritian company. ITC organized a mission in February 2002 to inspect the company and see whether it could meet South African standards. ITC then helped negotiate a technical agreement between the South African Bureau of Standards and the ministry responsible for controlling exports of fisheries in Mauritius. The outcome was that in the short term, South Africa would accept the canned tuna subject to inspection of each consignment. In the medium term, the Mauritian Department of Veterinary Services would gain accreditation as an inspection body and the food laboratory of the Mauritius Standards Bureau would also obtain accreditation, enabling South Africa to accept their inspection and test reports.
    • Tailor assistance to each country's needs. Not all developing countries are at the same level of industrial development and needs for technical assistance vary accordingly. It is important, therefore, to identify, evaluate and quantify the specific needs of each country, in terms of resources required, relevance in resolving problems and cost of such technical assistance. There are also clear differences between the needs and priorities of food importing and food exporting countries.

      Technical assistance should not replicate capacities in developed countries, but should aim to solve problems that are specific to the particular developing country by developing tailor-made solutions.

    • Improve market access for products with real export potential. The study findings suggest that donors consider giving aid for products that a country has been trying to export but has not been able to do so because of importing countries' SPS requirements. In addition, developing countries should carry out a preliminary identification of needs themselves to ensure that technical assistance is directed to products with real export potential.
    • Standards will get tougher, increasing demand for assistance. Even for developed countries, it is difficult to implement fully all the obligations in the WTO Agreements on TBT and SPS, especially in areas such as risk assessment as the basis of imposing SPS measures. Improvements in knowledge and analytical techniques available in developed countries are leading to new perceptions of risk. So the help needed is likely to exceed the resources available.

    A carpenter without tools 

    Donors need to tackle the apparent fragmentation of technical assistance through a coordinated, integrated approach. They also need to address problems comprehensively. In Pacific and African countries, for example, a range of agencies provided considerable training on pest risk analysis, but without providing the resources to use this training. "This can be compared to training a carpenter, but that carpenter then having no tools (equipment) or timber (financial resources) to actually work with," those carrying out the study concluded.

    In capacity-building projects, donors need to "lock in" the local authorities - particularly key coordinating ministries - during the project design phase. This should ensure there is a complementary effort to match the work of the development assistance agencies.

    The study also proposes "…that at times, technical assistance should be directed towards building regional capacity as distinct from national capacity." Examples to build regional capacity: laboratories for reference testing; record-keeping activities to access previous scientific studies and pest and disease information; and assistance to enable developing countries, if they so wish, to challenge measures that go beyond international norms.


    Main standardizing bodies for TBT and SPS 

    • Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC)
      Food standards
    • International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC)
      Standards for electrical, electronic and related technologies
    • International Organization for Standardization (ISO)
      Standards for all technical fields, except those covered by IEC
    • International Telecommunication Union (ITU)
      Standards for all fields of telecommunications
    • International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC)
      Standards to prevent the introduction of pests of plants and plant products through trade in these products

    • Office international des épizooties (OIE - World Organization for Animal Health)
      Standards to prevent the introduction of infectious agents and diseases from trade in animals, animal genetic material and animal products


    Technical barriers to trade covered by WTO rules 

    The WTO Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT) covers mandatory technical regulations concerning product characteristics or their related processes and production methods; and non-mandatory standards that set out rules, guidelines or characteristics for products or related processes and production methods.

    Technical regulations and standards relate mainly to industrial goods, raw materials and agricultural inputs. Measures imposed for the protection of human, animal and plant life or health are covered by the WTO Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) Measures. Both agreements also cover packaging, marketing or labelling requirements.

    Source: International Trade Rules: An Answer Book on the WTO Agreements for Small and Medium-Sized Exporters (ITC, 2001). 


    When does the SPS Agreement apply? 

    The SPS Agreement applies to all sanitary and phytosanitary measures which may, directly or indirectly, affect international trade. Sanitary measures deal with human or animal health, and phytosanitary measures are related to plant health. The agreement includes the protection of fish and wild fauna, forests and wild flora, but excludes the protection of the environment and animal welfare.

    For the purposes of the SPS Agreement, sanitary and phytosanitary measures are defined as measures applied in four situations:

    • For the protection of animal or plant life or health from risks arising from the entry, establishment or spread of pests, diseases, disease-carrying organisms or disease-causing organisms. Examples of this type of SPS measures are restrictions on fruits from areas plagued by the fruit fly, or an import ban on live cattle originating from herds infected by bovine tuberculosis to prevent the introduction and spread of the disease to domestic cattle.
    • For the protection of human or animal life or health arising from risks coming from additives, contaminants, toxins or disease-causing organisms in foods, beverages or feedstuffs. Examples of typical SPS measures are restrictions on imports of apples containing a certain amount of pesticide residues, or regulations applied to imports of poultry products containing salmonella. Veterinary drugs given to farm animals and which may pose a threat to humans who later consume the meat fall into this category. Human health risks arising from nutrition concerns or medical treatments are excluded.
    • Protection of human life or health from risks arising from diseases carried by animals, plants or products thereof, or from the entry, establishment or spread of pests. This category of measures includes those taken to prevent the spread of rabies or an import ban on meat and meat products from regions infested with foot-and-mouth disease.
    • Prevention or limitation of damage caused by the entry, establishment or spread of pests. This covers measures taken by a country to ban the importation of certain undesirable weeds which can cause major damage by crowding out domestic animal and plant species without necessarily causing a disease.

    Source: Export Quality Management: An Answer Book for Small and Medium-Sized Exporters (ITC, 2001). 


    Shyam K. Gujadhur (gujadhur@intracen.org) is ITC Senior Adviser on Export Quality Management. Prior to joining ITC, he was Director of the Mauritius Standards Bureau from 1976 to 1999. 

    This article is based on presentations to WTO and the UN Conference on Trade and Development about the joint ITC/Commonwealth Secretariat study, to be published shortly. This article focuses on SPS issues, although the study covers both TBT and SPS.