Following is a description of the international regulatory framework for fish safety and quality assurance.
The Final Act of the Uruguay Round of multilateral trade negotiations, which began in Punta del Este, Uruguay in September 1986 and concluded in Marrakesh, Morocco in April 1994, established the World Trade Organization (WTO) to succeed the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). The Uruguay Round negotiations were the first to deal with the liberalization of trade in agricultural products, an area excluded from previous rounds of negotiations.
Significant implications for food safety and quality arise from the Final Act of the Uruguay Round, especially from two binding agreements: the Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) Measures and the Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT Agreement).
The SPS agreement confirms the right of WTO member countries to apply measures necessary to protect human, animal and plant life and health. This right was included in the original 1947 GATT as a general exclusion from the provisions of the agreement provided that "such measures are not applied in a manner which would constitute a means of arbitrary or unjustifiable discrimination between countries where the same conditions prevail, or a disguised restriction on international trade". Despite this general condition for the application of national measures to protect human, animal and plant life and health, it had become, whether by design or accident, effective trade barriers.
The purpose of the SPS Agreement is to ensure that measures established by governments to protect human, animal and plant life and health, in the agricultural sector, including fisheries, are consistent with obligations prohibiting arbitrary or unjustifiable discrimination on trade between countries where the same conditions prevail and are not disguised restrictions on international trade. It requires that, with regard to food safety measures, WTO members base their national measures on international standards, guidelines and other recommendations adopted by the Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC) where they exist. This does not prevent a member country from adopting stricter measures if there is a scientific justification for doing so, or if the level of protection afforded by the Codex standards is inconsistent with the level of protection generally applied and deemed appropriate by the country concerned.
The SPS Agreement states that any measures taken that conform to international Codex standards, guidelines or recommendations are deemed to be appropriate, necessary and not discriminatory. Furthermore, the SPS Agreement calls for a programme of harmonization based on international standards. This work is guided by the WTO Committee on SPS measures, to which representatives of the CAC, the International Office of Epizootics (OIE) which deals with animal (including fish) health, and the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC) which deals with plant protection are invited.
Finally, the SPS Agreement requires that SPS measures are to be based on an assessment of the risks to humans, animal and plant life and health using internationally accepted risk assessment techniques. Risk assessment should take into account the available scientific evidence, the relevant processes and production methods, the inspection/sampling/testing methods, the prevalence of specific illnesses and other matters of relevance.
The Agreement on TBT is a revision of the agreement of the same name first developed under the Tokyo round of negotiations (1973 - 1979). The objective of the TBT Agreement is to prevent the use of national or regional technical requirements, or standards in general, as unjustified technical barriers to trade. The agreement covers standards relating to all types of products including industrial products and quality requirements for foods (except requirements related to SPS measures). It includes numerous measures designed to protect the consumer against deception and economic fraud.
The TBT Agreement basically provides that all technical standards and regulations must have a legitimate purpose and that the impact or cost of implementing the standard must be proportional to the purpose of the standard. It also states that if there are two or more ways of achieving the same objective, the least trade restrictive alternative should be followed. The agreement also places emphasis on international standards, WTO members being obliged to use international standards or parts of them except where the international standard would be ineffective or inappropriate in the national situation.
Both the SPS and TBT Agreements call on Member countries to facilitate the provision of technical assistance, especially to developing countries, either bilaterally or through the appropriate international organizations. Also, special and differential treatment provisions call for the consideration of the needs of developing countries and especially the least developed countries when preparing and implementing SPS and quality measures. Such consideration include providing longer time frames for compliance on products of interest to developing countries
The aspects of food standards that TBT requirements cover specifically are quality provisions, nutritional requirements, labelling, packaging and product content regulations, and methods of analysis. Unlike the SPS Agreement, the TBT Agreement does not specifically name international standard setting bodies, whose standards are to be used as benchmarks for judging compliance with the provisions of the Agreement.
Since 1962, the Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC) has been responsible for implementing the Joint FAO/WHO Food Standards Programme. The Commission's primary objectives are the protection of the health of consumers, the assurance of fair practices in food trade and the coordination of the work on food standards.
The CAC is an intergovernmental body with a membership of 165 Member governments. In addition, observers from international scientific organizations, food industry, food trade and consumer associations may attend sessions of the Commission and of its subsidiary bodies. An Executive Committee, six Regional Coordinating Committees and a Secretariat assist the Commission in administering its work programme and other activities.
The work of the Codex Alimentarius is divided between two basic types of committees:
nine general subject matter(s) Committees that deal with general principles, hygiene, veterinary drugs, pesticides, food additives, labelling, methods of analysis, nutrition and import/export inspection and certification systems and
12 Commodity Committees which deal with a specific type of food class or group, such as dairy and dairy products, fats and oils, or fish and fish products.
The work of the Committees on hygiene, fish and fishery products, veterinary drugs and import/export inspection and certification systems are of paramount interest to the safety and quality of internationally traded fish and fishery products.
In the environment of the Uruguay round agreements, the work of the CAC has taken on unprecedented importance with respect to consumer protection and international food trade. The specific Codex food safety provisions, which are recognized by the SPS Agreement, include the maximum residue limits for pesticides and veterinary drugs, the maximum level of use of food additives, the maximum levels of contaminants, and food hygiene requirements of Codex standards.
In the specific area of Food Hygiene, the CAC has revised its main document on food hygiene (CAC 2001) to incorporate risk assessment principles and to include specific references to the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) System.
The Codex standards are meant to be voluntary and adopted by consensus. But under the new SPS/TBT agreements, the Codex standards can not be called voluntary, nor are they fully mandatory, falling in an area in between which looks like voluntarism under duress. This is changing the Codex deliberations into a highly charged political exercise, because countries know that the standards they are debating might subsequently be the subject of WTO dispute settlement, and act therefore accordingly.
Another major issue increasingly faced by the Codex is the critical problem of scientific uncertainty. It can only operate on the hypothesis that best fits the facts available at any given time. To deal with the uncertainty, some countries advocate the precautionary principle: "Where there are threats, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent the damage". However, any precautionary measure taken should be accompanied by a search for greater scientific certainty, and periodic evaluation of the measures in light of new evidence.
During the recent decades, world fisheries have become a market-driven, dynamically developing sector of the food industry and coastal States have striven to take advantage of their new opportunities by investing in modern fishing fleets and processing factories in response to growing international demand for fish and fishery products. By the late 1980s it became clear, however, that fisheries resources could no longer sustain such rapid and often uncontrolled exploitation and development, and new approaches to fisheries management embracing conservation and environmental considerations were urgently needed.
The FAO Committee on Fisheries (COFI) at its Nineteenth Session in March 1991 called for the development of new concepts which would lead to responsible, sustained fisheries. Subsequently, the International Conference on Responsible Fishing, held in 1992 in Cancûn (Mexico) further requested FAO to prepare an international Code of Conduct to address these concerns. The outcome of this Conference, particularly the Declaration of Cancûn, was an important contribution to the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), in particular its Agenda 21.
Noting these and other important developments in world fisheries, the FAO Governing Bodies recommended the formulation of a global Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries which would be consistent with these instruments and, in a non-mandatory manner, establish principles and standards applicable to the conservation, management and development of all fisheries. The Code, which was unanimously adopted on 31 October 1995 by the 28th Session of the FAO Conference, provides a necessary framework for national and international efforts to ensure sustainable exploitation of aquatic living resources in harmony with the environment (FAO, 1995). Article 6 (General principles, provisions 6.7 and 6.140) and article 11 (Post-harvest practices and trade) are of particular relevance to fish trade, safety and quality. Provisions 11.1.2, 11.1.3 and 11.1.4 encourage States to establish and maintain effective national safety and quality assurance systems, to promote the implementation of the CAC standards and codes of practice and cooperate to achieve harmonization or mutual recognition, or both, of national sanitary measures and certification programmes.
The same 28th FAO Conference requested the elaboration of technical guidelines in support of the implementation of the Code of Conduct in collaboration with member states and relevant organizations. Volume No 7 provides technical guidelines for responsible fish utilization (FAO, 1998).
The globalization and further liberalization of world fish trade, while offering several benefits and opportunities, also presents new safety and quality challenges. Fish safety and quality assurance in the new millennium will require enhanced levels of international co-operation in setting up standards and regulations. The SPS/TBT agreements of the WTO and the benchmarking role of the Codex provide an international platform in this respect. Consequently, the major fish producing, exporting or importing countries have launched in the early 90's an overhaul of fish inspection regulations to set up the foundations for the implementation of the HACCP-based quality and safety systems, in conformity with the guidelines of the CAC. Regulations enacted by the EU (EC, 1991, 1994, 2000) and the USA (FDA, 1997) have set up the pace and the trend for many other countries, especially the major commercial partners of the EU or the USA, highlighting the need for better harmonization and recognition schemes. More recently, several countries have initiated national works on microbiological risk assessments. But several gaps and differences subsist. These differences entail questions such as:
Should HACCP address fish safety (USA) only or safety and spoilage (European Union)?
Where does the clear demarcation between GHP/GMP and HACCP lie?
Should the control authority assist the industry in developing HACCP programs or should it confine its role to assessment and verification?
Is HACCP always needed regardless of the product and process?
In international trade, who should be responsible for verification of HACCP implementation?. Is it the importer, the exporter, the control authority of the importing country, of the exporting authority, a third party?
How do we reconcile between the precautionary principle and science-based risk assessments
How can we achieve common understanding of equivalency and of recognition/equivalency schemes?
Why is the progressive implementation of HACCP not leading to a gradual decrease in end-product sampling and inspection?
Is it realistic to expect a global harmonization of microbiological standards for fish and fishery products? Even at the European Union level, only one microbiological standard has been developed in 1993 for cooked crustaceans and shellfish. For all the other fish products, different national microbiological standards are applied.
On many of these issues, developing countries are at a disadvantage because of insufficient/inadequate national capacities and resources.
CAC (Codex Alimentarius Commission) 2001. Food Hygiene. Basic Texts. 2nd ed. Food and Agriculture Organization / World Health Organization, Rome, Italy.
EC (European Committee) 1991. Council Directive 91/493/EEC of 22 July laying down the health conditions for the production and placing on the market of fishery products. Official Journal of the European Communities. No. L268. pp.15-34.
EC (European Committee) 1994. Commission Decision of 20 May 1994 laying down detailed rules for the application of Council Directive 91/493/EEC, as regards own health checks on fishery products.Official Journal of the European Communities L 156. pp. 50 - 57
EC (European Committee) 2000. Proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on the hygiene of foodstuffs, Brussels, Belgium. pp.17-42.
FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) 1995. Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries. FAO, Rome.
FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) 1998. FAO Technical Guidelines for Responsible Fisheries. No. 7. FAO, Rome.
FDA (Food and Drug Administration) 1995. Procedures for the Safe and Sanitary Processing and Importing of Fish and Fishery Products; Final Rule. Code of Federal Regulations, Parts 123 and 1240. Volume 60, No 242, 65095-65202.