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Veterinary controls in international fish trade

Fishery products are among the most extensively traded food commodities in the world. For this reason, and also owing to their perishable nature, most countries have strict regulations and border inspection procedures. Freshness, hygiene and packaging, as well as accompanying documentation, are rigorously checked.

The substantial variation among the standards and regimes of importing countries constitutes one of the most severe difficulties for exporters in the international market of fish and fishery products. Despite the existence of the World Trade Organization (WTO) Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS Agreement) and the WTO Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT), aiming to reduce possible arbitrariness of decisions, differences between national standards and inspection systems continue to exist, and are commonly associated with non-tariff measures affecting trade.

Some countries have had regulations in force for many years and, over the past 20 years or so, they have issued many norms that are more detailed. Such proliferation of norms has a direct link to the implementation of various agreements to liberalize trade. It should also be borne in mind that total importation costs have also increased, owing to a reduction in the quantity of each fishery shipment. Thus, the fixed border inspection costs are now applied to many shipments of smaller quantities, and transportation costs for smaller quantities are higher. This presents additional challenges to exporters, especially from developing countries.

Veterinary barriers play an important positive role in safeguarding public health and ensuring the quality of imported products, but also a less-favourable role in blocking transportation of products and thus limiting the flow of goods in the global market. Veterinary checks raise the quality standards of imported products generally, because by means of control and sampling they restrict the movement of contaminated products that might be hazardous to the health of consumers. This has also led to significant savings in health-care costs in countries that apply these rules effectively. The unfavourable elements created by veterinary barriers include: higher costs of food, a slowdown in food marketing, limitations on foreign trade and exports, extra work and time involved in transactions, food products that do not conform to the relevant standards and thus are not imported and do not enter the market, and the risk of encouraging food adulteration (use of forbidden additives and dyes, etc.) to circumvent health checks.

The preventive approach requires that all fishery products arriving at national borders have already adhered to general standards and principles of production, handling, transportation, etc. All fishery products must be properly treated and processed in certified plants and factories. The certification process requires that plants satisfy at least the minimum requirements in terms of layout, design, construction, hygiene and sanitation, while the industry is required to take responsibility for fish safety control and to implement in-plant quality-control programmes on the basis of HACCP norms.

The most common causes of detention of fishery products at international borders are:

  • microbiological (Listeria, Salmonella, viruses, etc.) and parasitological (nematodes, cestodes, etc.);
  • chemical (heavy metal residues, pharmaceutical traces, dioxins, etc.);
  • other causes (absence or incomplete health certification and labelling, incomplete traceability and other documentation, IUU fishing, damaged packaging, etc.).

The increase in fish trade and the opening of large new markets will create new issues related to the non-harmonization of standards. The type of packaging (certification of materials used), origin of the catch (IUU fishing) and labelling of products will probably represent the most important causes of detention. The traceability of all goods traded will always be more important in a philosophy of open, accountable business dealings. The modernization of systems of traceability of batches of fishery products will allow considerable savings of money and time at the border.

Read the full text on the Globefish Research Programme, Volume 121, Veterinary controls in international fish trade


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