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WTO discusses how to make certification standards less of a barrier to trade

02 February 2014

At the end of October 2013, the WTO held a formal meeting of the Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT) Committee to discuss “how to make it easier for products to be certified as meeting required standards, and how special efforts can be made for developing countries”. The report on the meeting noted how “streamlining the processes for ensuring that products meet required standards can substantially reduce costs and time to market for such products.” According to some WTO meeting delegates, effective streamlining of procedures can slash costs of access by up to 80%, and the key is having products “certified before they leave the exporting country, according to agreed standards and by accredited bodies” that are recognised internationally.

Committee members noted, however, that developing countries face difficulties in securing accreditation for their laboratories and inspection services, hence verifiably meeting the standards required for international certification. They maintained that technical assistance potentially plays a large part in addressing this challenge.

A proposal was also made to provide earlier notification of changes in standards, and to strengthen consultation with developing countries before the introduction of new technical measures.

Particular concerns were expressed at the meeting about the impact of the application of the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive (RED) and the US Renewable Fuel Standard. In the case of the EU RED, some participants in the meeting claimed that the standards were “arbitrary, not based on international standards or best available science, and [discriminated] against biofuels derived from certain crops such as palm or soybean oil”.

Meanwhile, under new EU proposals on plant health, although the purpose is to maintain “the current ‘open system’ – allowing movements of plant and plant products into and within the EU under certain conditions – … more focus is being put on high-risk trade coming from third countries and traceability of planting materials on the internal market.”

Editorial comment

The impact of standards and broader food safety and sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) issues on ACP agro-food sector trade is an increasingly important issue and is considered the principal obstacle to ACP Group agro-food sector exports. In 2012–13, the EU introduced changes to a range of SPS and food safety controls which raised the costs of serving EU markets. In some instances, the proportionality of these measures was questioned (see Agritrade article ‘ New EU maximum residue levels hit Kenyan vegetable exports’, 28 April 2013). In other cases, the underlying scientific basis for the measures was questioned (see Agritrade article ‘ Debate on Citrus Black Spot continues’, 13 January 2014). In 2013, the EC also proposed changes to the financing of official food and feed controls, which are likely to substantially increase the financial burden placed on ACP exporters (see Agritrade article ‘ New EU food and feed controls to include full cost recovery’, 7 July 2013).

Efforts of individual ACP governments to reduce the impact of the application of EU control measures have to date met with little success. This can be attributed to three factors:

  • the absence of clearly defined structures for the exchange of information on planned changes;
  • the absence of effective consultative structures regarding the scientific basis for such changes;
  • the absence of binding arbitration mechanisms for SPS- and food safety-related trade disputes.

Establishing (a) clearly defined structures for the exchange of information on planned changes and for consultation on the scientific basis for such actions and (b) binding arbitration mechanisms for SPS- and food safety-related trade disputes potentially offers a significant area for collective ACP initiatives, both at the WTO and in dialogue with the EU and beyond.

This area for collective initiatives can be seen as both complementing and reaching beyond existing SPS and TBT-related programmes and projects (from the sustainable horticulture COLEACP–PIP programme to the ACP–EU TBT Technical Assistance Facility). It could also build on some of the new arrangements being established as part of EU FTAs with fellow OECD countries (see Agritrade article ‘ SPS dispute resolution and trans-Atlantic trade agreements’, 16 December 2013).


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