Lesson-42 Food Safety Issues under WTO


Unlike most manufactured products, agricultural output requires additional care. Apart from the productivity and quality considerations at the production level, there are some necessary precautions that need to be taken when agricultural products are stored and transported. Absence of such cautious measures would have adverse effects on the quality of the product. Thus it is in the interest of the producers as well as the exporters to ensure that certain hygienic and other safety conditions are met. With an increase in the levels of health-safety awareness among the citizens of both developing and developed countries, such practices become imperative for the suppliers of these products. Recognizing the importance of the issue, each country has specified certain norms of processing, packaging and testing, and certain standards of quality that must be maintained. At the international level, WTO has specified some Sanitary and Phyto-Sanitary measures that need to be followed for international trade of food products. The SPS Agreement under the WTO seeks to lay down the minimum sanitary and phyto-sanitary standards that the member countries must achieve. This is to ensure the safety of life and health of humans, animals and plants.


The issue of Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT) came to forefront during the Tokyo Round (1973 to 1979) of multilateral negotiations. It was during this time that WTO members signed the TBT Agreement. The SPS Agreement came as the following step to the TBT agreement, with a more focused attention on food trade. This was signed during the Uruguay Round of WTO. The primary objective of the agreement was to safeguard plant and animal health via ensuring food safety. It was recognized that government in each country has the right to protect the health of animal, plant and human life. The methodology adopted for this was to regulate the technical requirements of production, inspection mechanisms and labelling of the food products. ‘Harmonization’ and ‘Transparency’ were to be the guiding principle of the agreement.

At the Mid-term review of the Uruguay Round, in December 1988, the priority areas of SPS were recognized as:

  • International harmonization on the basis of the standards developed by the international organizations.

  • Development of an effective notification process for national regulations.

  • Setting up of a system for the bilateral resolution of disputes.

  • Improvement of the dispute settlement process.

  • Provision of the necessary input of scientific expertise and judgment, relying on relevant international organizations.


All countries maintain measures to ensure that food is safe for consumers, and to prevent the spread of pests or diseases among animals and plants. These sanitary and phytosanitary measures can take many forms, such as requiring products to come from a disease-free area, inspection of products, specific treatment or processing of products, setting of allowable maximum levels of pesticide residues or permitted use of only certain additives in food. Sanitary (human and animal health) and phytosanitary (plant health) measures apply to domestically produced food or local animal and plant diseases, as well as to products coming from other countries. 


Sanitary and phytosanitary measures, by their very nature, may result in restrictions on trade. All governments accept the fact that some trade restrictions may be necessary to ensure food safety and animal and plant health protection. However, governments are sometimes pressured to go beyond what is needed for health protection and to use sanitary and phytosanitary restrictions to shield domestic producers from economic competition. Such pressure is likely to increase as other trade barriers are reduced as a result of the Uruguay Round agreements. A sanitary or phytosanitary restriction which is not actually required for health reasons can be a very effective protectionist device, and because of its technical complexity, a particularly deceptive and difficult barrier to challenge. 

The Agreement on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS) builds on previous GATT rules to restrict the use of unjustified sanitary and phytosanitary measures for the purpose of trade protection. The basic aim of the SPS Agreement is to maintain the sovereign right of any government to provide the level of health protection it deems appropriate, but to ensure that these sovereign rights are not misused for protectionist purposes and do not result in unnecessary barriers to international trade. 


The SPS Agreement, while permitting governments to maintain appropriate sanitary and phytosanitary protection, reduces possible arbitrariness of decisions and encourages consistent decision-making. It requires that sanitary and phytosanitary measures be applied for no other purpose than that of ensuring food safety and animal and plant health. In particular, the agreement clarifies which factors should be taken into account in the assessment of the risk involved. Measures to ensure food safety and to protect the health of animals and plants should be based as far as possible on the analysis and assessment of objective and accurate scientific data. 


The SPS Agreement encourages governments to establish national SPS measures consistent with international standards, guidelines and recommendations. This process is often referred to as "harmonization". The WTO itself does not and will not develop such standards. However, most of the WTO’s member governments (132 at the date of drafting) participate in the development of these standards in other international bodies. The standards are developed by leading scientists in the field and governmental experts on health protection and are subject to international scrutiny and review. 

International standards are often higher than the national requirements of many countries, including developed countries, but the SPS Agreement explicitly permits governments to choose not to use the international standards. However, if the national requirement results in a greater restriction of trade, a country may be asked to provide scientific justification, demonstrating that the relevant international standard would not result in the level of health protection the country considered appropriate. 


Due to differences in climate, existing pests or diseases, or food safety conditions, it is not always appropriate to impose the same sanitary and phytosanitary requirements on food, animal or plant products coming from different countries. Therefore, sanitary and phytosanitary measures sometimes vary, depending on the country of origin of the food, animal or plant product concerned. This is taken into account in the SPS Agreement. Governments should also recognize disease-free areas which may not correspond to political boundaries, and appropriately adapt their requirements to products from these areas. The agreement, however, checks unjustified discrimination in the use of sanitary and phytosanitary measures, whether in favour of domestic producers or among foreign suppliers. 


An acceptable level of risk can often be achieved in alternative ways. Among the alternatives — and on the assumption that they are technically and economically feasible and provide the same level of food safety or animal and plant health — governments should select those which are not more trade restrictive than required to meet their health objective. Furthermore, if another country can show that the measures it applies provide the same level of health protection, these should be accepted as equivalent. This helps ensure that protection is maintained while providing the greatest quantity and variety of safe foodstuffs for consumers, the best availability of safe inputs for producers, and healthy economic competition. 


The SPS Agreement increases the transparency of sanitary and phytosanitary measures. Countries must establish SPS measures on the basis of an appropriate assessment of the actual risks involved, and, if requested, make known what factors they took into consideration, the assessment procedures they used and the level of risk they determined to be acceptable. Although many governments already use risk assessment in their management of food safety and animal and plant health, the SPS Agreement encourages the wider use of systematic risk assessment among all WTO member governments and for all relevant products. 


Governments are required to notify other countries of any new or changed sanitary and phytosanitary requirements which affect trade, and to set up offices (called "Enquiry Points") to respond to requests for more information on new or existing measures. They also must open to scrutiny how they apply their food safety and animal and plant health regulations. The systematic communication of information and exchange of experiences among the WTO’s member governments provides a better basis for national standards. Such increased transparency also protects the interests of consumers, as well as of trading partners, from hidden protectionism through unnecessary technical requirements. 


A special Committee has been established within the WTO as a forum for the exchange of information among member governments on all aspects related to the implementation of the SPS Agreement. The SPS Committee reviews compliance with the agreement, discusses matters with potential trade impacts, and maintains close co-operation with the appropriate technical organizations. In a trade dispute regarding a sanitary or phytosanitary measure, the normal WTO dispute settlement procedures are used, and advice from appropriate scientific experts can be sought.  


Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS): This is a premier organization for setting standards. So far it has set more than 17,000 standards. 150 of these are mandatory and others voluntary. The procedure adopted by BIS is same as in other countries. A suggestion coming from a consumer or an organization is considered by a committee for its viability, before formulation of a final draft. BIS provides various services to the firms. These include product certification, training on ISO 9000 and ISO 14000, list of Indian and international standards for different products and also some general information required by the firm.

Ministry of Food Processing Industry (MFP): As the name suggests, this ministry formulates the procedures and standards for the food processing industries. Thus rules are put together regarding the following thrust areas:

• Material to be used for the machine and equipment that come in contact with food.

• Quality of water used for production and for other purposes like washing and cleaning.

• Requirements of in-house laboratories.

• Assessment of the quality by food technologists.

• Standards pertaining to chemical content, physical characteristics, contaminant levels, and additive levels allowed in food.

Export Inspection Council (EIC): This is an apex agency that facilitates exports of SPS compliant commodities. It also gives advice to the government regarding measures to be taken for enforcement of quality control an inspection. Further, it also makes arrangement for pre-shipment inspection of commodities to ensure compliance of all specified standards. EIC provides three kinds of inspection and certification, they are;

• Consignment-wise inspection.

• In-process quality control. Food Processing Five Sector Project

• Food safety management system based certification.

Codex Alimentarius: This is an international organization that brings together all the interested parties, scientists, technical experts, governments, consumers and industry representatives. The standards set by codex are becoming increasingly acceptable world over, and thus are used as a benchmark by the domestic organizations. They even play a vital role in trade negotiations and settling of disputes.

Last modified: Thursday, 10 October 2013, 5:35 AM