By Sharon Atieno

Melvin Spreij in a WTO seminar
Credit: Yanie de Nadaillac

Though food safety and protection of animal and plant health is an essential area of concern in trade, it is often neglected, resulting in blocked exports.

In 2010, Nigeria, a high exporter of sesame and shea, was affected by aflatoxins as a result of poor storage and impurities.  This posed a great challenge for meeting global demand and accessing high value markets like Europe and United States. As a result, communities whose livelihoods depended on sesame and shea were left vulnerable.

Between 2004 and 2017, Standards and Trade Development Facility (STDF) funded 85 projects and 88 project preparation grants (PPGs), worth a total of USD 70.2 million, to help and support developing countries in tackling food safety, animal and plant health issues to gain and maintain access to markets.

Through a public-private partnership, the Nigeria Export Promotion Council (NEPC) and International Trade Centre (ITC) worked together with 14 collaborating trade partners from across government and industry to drive good practices in production and control along the sesame seed and shea nut supply chain. This in turn led to increased exports with sesame oil export generating USD 12.93 million in 2018, according to trade map.

In order to ensure food safety and protection of plant and animal health, members of World Trade Organization (WTO) have to adhere to certain measures that have been put in place, in what is referred to as Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) Agreement.

The SPS Agreement ensures that a country’s consumers are supplied with food that is safe to eat while at the same time ensuring that unnecessary health and safety regulations are not used as an excuse to protect domestic producers from foreign competition.

Though the Agreement allows countries to set their own standards, it also specifies that regulations must be based on scientific findings and based on the standards developed by international organizations.

Such organizations include Codex Alimentarius Commission (Codex) for food safety, World Organization for Animal Health for animal health and for plant health, the International Plant Protection Convention (IPCC) based in Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO).

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 allowable maximum levels of pesticide residues or limiting the permitted use of additives in food.

However, due to differences in climate, existing pests or diseases, or food safety conditions in different countries, the requirements are not the same for all countries.

In cases where a country does not agree with an SPS measure taken by another country, they forward the agenda before the SPS committee, where the accused country has an obligation to answer to the committee.

“Very often trade concerns are resolved at this level, because you have the SPS committee but then you have the two partners meeting at the margins to find a solution for the trade problem, ” said Melvin Spreij, head STDF in an interview.

Almost 300 specific trade concerns, covering the full range of SPS issues, were raised in the committee’s first 15 years.

“Sometimes the trade issues are not resolved and if that’s the case then it means you enter into the dispute settlement procedure but the cases are not that many, “ he adds.

While governments are required to notify each other through the WTO Secretariat, of any new or changed sanitary and phytosanitary requirements which affect trade, some still lag behind.

“You need to give at least 60 days to your trading partners to provide comments on your regulation. When the comments come, you take them aboard or not, but in the end you issue a final regulation,” says Spreij, “for that regulation to enter in to force, there is another time period.”

However, emergency measures enter into force immediately then notification follows. So far, there are 16,550 measures notified and 2,183 emergency notifications.

By systematically communicating and exchanging experiences, WTO members improve their national standards while protecting consumers and trading partners from protectionism hidden in unnecessary technical requirements.

To ensure that trade flows more smoothly and quickly across borders, streamlining SPS measures, improving coordination among SPS agencies and with customs, joint inspections and more transparency through notifications are necessary.