WTO puts the spotlight on food safety

The World Trade Organisation (WTO) committee dealing with food safety, animal and plant health, heard a record number of specific trade concerns when it met last week. 

A total of eight new trade concerns were raised at the meeting and 16 measures previously discussed were back on the agenda, making it the highest number of specific trade concerns raised in the Committee’s history.

Several members raised concerns about the European Union’s proposed amendment of its approval procedure for genetically modified food and feed (also known as biotech products).

The United States said that the amendment would allow EU member states to restrict or ban the use of such products with no justified reasons. Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, Brazil and Canada raised similar concerns, stating that the proposed revision would create unnecessary barriers to international trade.

In response, the EU said that the proposal does not introduce any restriction or ban on biotech products, but would only provide the possibility for EU member states to opt out of the EU decision of authorisation if they wish, for overriding reasons of public interest.

The committee also discussed China’s proposed amendments to tighten its safety assessment of agricultural genetically modified organisms.

Paraguay and the United States welcomed China’s notification, but noted the negative impact such a regulatory procedure could have on international trade. According to the United States, the delays and lack of transparency in China’s current biotech approval process remain a serious trade concern for exporters, and the proposed amendment could further prolong and complicate the approval process. In response, China said that the draft revision aims to enhance the safety assessment of agricultural GMOs, and invited WTO members to comment on the proposed revision.

Costa Rica has also places a temporary import ban on avocados from certain exporters, due to the presence of avocado sunblotch viroid — a disease affecting avocado trees – in various avocado-producing countries. Mexico and Guatemala said that Costa Rica’s measure halts trade and is not justified by scientific evidence. The concern was supported by the United States and South Africa. In response, Costa Rica noted that the measure aims to protect the country from being affected by sunblotch disease, and said that it would maintain close dialogue with its trading partners to resolve the trade concerns.

The meeting also discussed a few concerns that were raised at previous meetings of the SPS Committee, including the EU’s ongoing work on defining criteria for identifying endocrine disruptors, South Africa’s concern about EU measures on citrus black spot, import restrictions on Japanese food products following the nuclear power plant accident, and concerns expressed by Peru and a number of other countries regarding the application and modification of the EU regulation on novel foods.

One of the key functions of the committee is to provide a forum for WTO members to discuss their food safety, animal and plant health measures in order to ensure that these measures do not unnecessarily restrict international trade.


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