Are food safety and plant health regulations fair?

International standards have opened some markets, but on trade and safety regulations, the dice are still loaded against the poor

ROME, 12 July 2002 -- Pacific sardines cannot be called sardines in Europe, said the European Union. Yes they can, said Peruvian sardine exporters, and fought their case through the World Trade Organization (WTO). They won.

The Peruvian case rested on the WTO convention that importers must justify any safety and labelling regulations stricter than those laid down by the Codex Alimentarius Commission, a food-safety body run by FAO and the World Health Organization. These standards protect consumers, but also prevent the use of safety and labelling concerns as excuses to exclude exporting countries' products from lucrative markets.

At a well-attended meeting during the World Food Summit: five years later, delegates heard how important the Codex Alimentarius is for low-income countries. As Niue Prime Minister Young Vivian told the meeting, small Pacific countries not only import much of their food, exposing them to unscrupulous exporters, they also must fight unfair restrictions on their own exports. Standards also matter for developed countries, who must protect their consumers and their exports.

FAO also hosts the secretariat of the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC), the purpose of which is to secure common and effective action among governments to prevent the introduction and spread of plant pests across borders through trade in plants and plant material. It has just set standards for wood that will help control movement of the longhorn beetle, a deadly tree insect. IPPC's international plant health standards are also recognized by the WTO, under the Agreement on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures.

But are these international standards fair when some countries can afford to enforce them and others cannot? The meeting finished with a lively debate, showing the Summit's value as an exchange of views far beyond the plenary hall.

How Codex works
The Codex Alimentarius, or food code, presents an opportunity for all countries to join the international community in formulating and harmonizing food standards and ensuring their global implementation. The Codex exists solely on the basis of an FAO-WHO agreement. Although its standards are influential and are recognized by the WTO, the Codex Alimentarius Commission cannot enforce them.

Unlike the Codex, the IPPC is a binding international Convention with countries as Contracting Parties. International Standards are adopted by the Governing Body of the Convention, although they only become binding through the WTO/SPS mechanism.

The implementation issue
But can international standards be followed by all in practice?

A delegate from Mauritania pointed out that whereas its exports to developed countries were always checked, they lacked the resources to enforce compliance on goods coming the other way. But exporters from rich countries have sometimes been known to dump dangerous or date-expired food in poor ones - occasionally with forged certificates.

A delegate from Benin said that it lacked the means to check meat products from the European Union for Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), or "mad cow" disease. A delegate from the Democratic Republic of Congo said that his country kept hearing that trade was the key to prosperity, but phytosanitary standards were too difficult for poor countries to implement. What was the WTO going to do?

Laurens Jan Brinkhorst, Minister for Agriculture, Nature Management and Fisheries of the Netherlands, stressed the need for practical action. The Codex Alimentarius Commission advises member states on meeting food safety requirements and is looking at how this can be integrated with the work of the International Plant Protection Convention.

International standards have a key role -- the WTO can help them be the solution, not the barrier, to fair trade. But poorer countries need the capacity to implement such standards - or they will work in favour of the richer ones.

The road will be a long one, and it will indeed take money. But Peru's sardines have shown the way.
Minister Laurens Jan Brinkhorst of the Netherlands says that food safety  has become more important over the last two years

Minister Laurens Jan Brinkhorst of the Netherlands says that food safety has become more important over the last two years

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FAO, 2002