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Growing relevance of standards as WTO committee celebrates 25 years


For 25 years an agreement on how governments can apply food safety and animal and plant health measures (sanitary and phytosanitary or SPS measures) has set out the basic rules for trading partners in the World Trade Organization (WTO). The SPS Agreement ensures a country’s consumers are supplied with food that is safe and that national health and safety regulations are not used for protecting domestic markets.

The SPS Agreement encourages governments “to establish national SPS measures consistent with international standards, guidelines and recommendations” such as those developed by WTO member governments in other international organizations. The novelty for the SPS agreement is that three standard setting organizations (‘the three sisters’) are explicitly mentioned: For food safety, the joint FAO/WHO Codex Alimentarius Commission; for animal health, the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), and for plant health the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC).

Greater active participation in Codex

The entry into force of the WTO in 1995 encouraged greater active participation in Codex, especially from low- and middle-income countries, and led the way to broader global consensus in standard setting and the development of the risk-analysis framework so fundamental to the way standards are established today. With explicit reference to Codex in the SPS Agreement, the FAO/WHO Programme for the provision of scientific advice also expanded to meet the demand for the sound science and risk assessment that underpin Codex standards.

Codex standards needed more than ever

The WTO SPS Committee and Codex have been working closely together over the past 25 years.  Christiane Wolff is Head of the SPS Section, at the WTO. “The SPS Agreement recognizes Codex as the standard-setting body for food safety, and since then the work of Codex has been informing WTO Members' SPS measures. Codex science-based international standards ensure that safe food can be traded in a more transparent and efficient way. They will be needed more than ever to help Members tackle the food safety challenges of the next 25 years”, she said.

Codex Geneva liaison

Gracia Brisco from the Codex Secretariat has been based in Geneva since 2019 to provide valuable liaison at the WTO and other Geneva-based agencies. “Over the last 20 years we have seen an increased demand for the Codex Secretariat to provide information on Codex standards and ongoing work in the framework of the discussion of specific trade concerns (STCs) and dispute settlement cases. We also work together with the SPS Secretariat on building capacity on SPS knowledge and skills to train the next generation of SPS negotiators in Codex and the WTO”, she said.


Geneva, Switzerland

Codex makes every attempt to adopt its standards by consensus.  “It happens on rare occasions that we fail to reach consensus and the standard is only adopted with numerous reservations, by vote or not at all.” says Brisco. As participation in Codex grows there are times when it is more difficult to reach consensus on critical issues such as growth promoters or antimicrobial resistance. “So, the big challenge for Codex for the future is to achieve consensus in the areas where all parties can agree to establish food safety standards that provide the same level of protection to their consumers to facilitate trade flow and economic growth”.

Tom Heilandt, Codex Secretary believes further strengthening collaboration with WTO and the SPS Committee to facilitate trade while protecting human health during a worldwide crisis such as the current coronavirus pandemic is essential. “We need to explore innovative ways to ensure business continuity while remaining inclusive and transparent and without placing additional burdens on developing countries”, he said.

SPS critical in the decades ahead

Robert Ahern, United States delegate to the SPS committee, said: “Sanitary and phytosanitary issues will continue to be critical in the decades ahead as farmers around the world work to feed a growing global population. Within this context, the role of Codex, OIE and IPPC in establishing international standards helps ensure food security through facilitating safe trade and helps safeguard farmers’ livelihoods, providing access to the tools and technologies they need to feed the world.”

Foreman supervises cargo

Establishing international standards helps ensure food security through facilitating safe trade.

Old and new challenges need to be addressed

Brazil is represented at the SPS committee by Jônathas Silveira. “Since its outset, the WTO SPS Agreement has played a key role in making international agricultural trade safer, as well as more open and predictable. In spite of the advancements we have witnessed in the implementation of the Agreement in the last 25 years, we believe that there are still old and new challenges that need to be addressed.  In order to tackle these challenges, countries must not only adhere to the standards that they themselves create within the framework of Codex Alimentarius, IPPC and OIE, but also advocate for ‘the three sisters’ to have a stronger role in addressing the pressing issues brought by Members to the WTO SPS Committee.

Silumela Manyuwa, who represents South Africa at the SPS agrees the Committee plays an important consultative role in addressing SPS measures which may directly or indirectly affect international trade. “The three sisters can play a crucial role in providing advice to the SPS Committee on STCs and identifying those which could have been addressed by the use of existing international standards”, he said.

A representative from the European Union delegation to the SPS said: The EU will continue to cooperate with its partners to ensure that both the SPS Agreement and the Codex Alimentarius provide a solid and predictable basis for international trade in safe food. This has become even more important in the run-up to achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and a multilateral trade system that fully adheres to the objectives of sustainable development and the protection of the environment.”

Committed work and science-based decisions

The SPS committee is currently chaired by Greg MacDonald, Canada: “The SPS Committee has been at the forefront of SPS discussions, aiming to find common ground between the various concerns raised by WTO Members. Protecting health and ensuring food safety while avoiding unnecessary barriers to trade requires committed work and science-based decisions. Codex support is invaluable in helping Members ensure that food is safe, and trade can flow smoothly. New challenges come to the table every day, and the SPS Committee and Codex will continue working together to face them”.


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SPS at the WTO