This chapter deals with the WTO rules applicable to sanitary and phytosanitary measures, commonly referred to as ‘SPS measures’. Generally speaking, SPS measures are measures aimed at the protection of human, animal or plant life or health from certain specified risks. As mentioned in Chapter 13, SPS measures often take the form of technical barriers to trade but are subject to a different set of WTO rules. The negotiators of the WTO agreements considered that these measures merited special attention for two reasons: first, because the preservation of domestic regulatory autonomy was, and still is, considered of particular importance where health risks are at issue; and, second, because of the close link between SPS measures and agricultural trade, a sector that is notoriously difficult to liberalise. As a result, SPS measures are dealt with in a separate agreement, the Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures, commonly referred to as the SPS Agreement. This Agreement provides for rights and obligations, which, although broadly similar, differ in certain key respects from those provided in the GATT 1994 and the TBT Agreement.
WTO Members frequently adopt SPS measures to protect humans and animals from food safety risks, or to protect humans, animals and plants from risks arising from pests and diseases. However, countries exporting food and agricultural products, as well as international organisations, have observed that SPS measures are increasingly used as instruments of ‘trade protectionism’. W. Barnes reported in the Financial Times in April 2006:
Stringent, often excessively strict, hygiene standards are increasingly being used by rich countries to block food imports from developing economies, according to researchers in Thailand, India and Australia … The recent bird flu scare was manna for Western safety officials, said a trade negotiator at the Thai commerce ministry. ‘The rich food importers are getting better and better at manufacturing safety hazards – real and imagined’, the official said … A World Bank study found that trade in cereals and nuts would increase by $12bn if all 15 importing countries [referring to the fifteen EU Member States at the time of the study] adopted the international Codex standards for aflatoxin contamination, which is produced by a cancer-linked mould, than if they all abided by tougher EU requirements. Some safety measures appear exotic. […]