Feed the Future
This project is part of the U.S. Government's global hunger and food security initiative.

International Food Safety: An Overview of the Sanitary and Phytosanitary Agreement

Food safety systems, along with food supply chains, are mandatory for countries to access global markets. Thus, international regulatory systems must be in place to ensure that food is safe for international market access and consumption. Therefore, the Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) Agreement came into effect on January 1, 1995 with the establishment of the World Trade Organization (WTO). The SPS Agreement is a government-to-government interaction and applies only to those governmental measures that can affect international trade. This publication is not intended to be an official reference to the SPS Agreement so, please refer to the actual agreement for the exact language.

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Important Elements/Principles of the SPS Agreement

  • SPS Measures: SPS measures include relevant laws, regulations, requirements, decrees and procedures (e.g., production and processes methods, risk assessment, final product testing, inspection, certification, packaging and labeling requirements, etc.) that governments implement to protect human, plant and animal health and life from pests, diseases and unlawful additives and contaminants (toxins, microorganisms, etc.) in food and feedstuffs.
  • Rights and Obligations of the SPS Agreement: Countries that accept the SPS Agreement are committed to act in accordance by the rules attached to the Agreement. Countries have the right to protect themselves from diseases or unwanted pests that could harm human, plant and animal health. The SPS assures the authority of countries to determine their own appropriate SPS measures. However, these measures should be based on scientific evidence and available information. Measures cannot be used to discriminate among trading partners and should not create unnecessary barriers to trade.
  • Transparency: Countries must promptly publish all new SPS requirements and provide an explanation of their reasons for establishing these specific SPS measures. Before a country changes an existing measure or imposes a new measure or regulation that might affect trade, the country must notify the WTO. The WTO then circulates the notification, and trading partners have an opportunity to comment before the measure is implemented.
  • Risk Assessment: SPS measures must be based on risk assessment; the risk assessment should be conducted based on available scientific evidence and other relevant information including economic information.
  • Regionalization: Countries must ensure that their SPS measures are in accordance with the characteristics of the area, taking into account the level of prevalence of specific diseases or pests.
  • The Appropriate Level of Protection (ALOP): Every country has the right to determine the ALOP that suits its needs. However, that level of protection must be technically justified and applied consistently among all of the trade partners. ALOP must keep negative trade impacts as low as possible.
  • Harmonization:The SPS Agreement encourages countries to harmonize their SPS measures according to standards developed by the three international inter-governmental standards-setting bodies, which are:
    • World Health Organization (WHO) Codex Alimentarius Commission for food safety; the food safety system should include international food safety regulatory framework/enforcement; standard sanitation operating procedures; good agricultural practices; good manufacturing practices; risk assessment system; hazard analysis and critical control point; pesticide regulations/enforcement system; national maximum residue level; food safety laboratories; inspection/monitoring system; etc.
    • International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC) for plant health
    • World Organization for Animal Health (OIE). However, if a government chooses to apply different standards, the standards must be technically justified based on accurate scientific evidence and available information.
  • Equivalence: The SPS Agreement outlines measures that member countries should follow. However, countries have the right to choose alternative measures that sufficiently reach the same ALOP. Furthermore, importing countries must allow exporting countries to use measures that are least trade restrictive.
  • Unjustifiable SPS measures:SPS measure can pose challenges, especially for small- and medium-sized enterprises, when countries impose unjustified (not based on scientific risk assessment) SPS measures to only protect domestic markets from imports. For example, unjustified SPS trade barriers prevent U.S. producers from shipping hundreds of millions of dollars each year.
  • Dispute Settlement: The trading partners might not agree on the interpretation or application of provisions in the SPS Agreement which might require resolution by an outside body.
  • Enquiry point: Each country must designate an enquiry point (a single contact point) to be responsible for the SPS provision and answering all reasonable questions from other countries. In the U.S., the USDA Foreign Agriculture Service (FAS) is the official World Trade Organization (WTO) SPS Enquiry Point.
  • Capacity Building and Technical Assistance: Capacity building is an important tool to promote healthy trade among trading partners. Countries agree to provide technical assistance to each other, but especially to developing countries. For example, The U.S. has developed several programs that provide funds to groups and individuals for capacity building and technical assistance including the Borlaug Fellowship Program, the Embassy Science Fellows Program, the International Graduate Studies Program and the Faculty Exchange Program. The U.S. Government has also provided training, internships, advice on drafting rules and regulations, and data sharing. These programs and technical assistance helped many developing countries to build their SPS regulatory infrastructure, which increased their abilities to export to the U.S. and other countries.

Question for discussion: What types of capacity building/technical assistance should high-income countries provide to developing countries to improve their abilities to comply with the SPS Agreement?