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

International Rules for Trade and Food Safety

The need for strong links between food safety and trade facilitation is palpable in Africa. The World Health Organization estimates that 91 million people fall ill due to foodborne diseases, with 137,000 people dying annually in African countries. For example, South Africa’s Department of Health reported that 36 people died in the country in late 2017 from an outbreak of the foodborne disease listeriosis.[1] At the same time, the level of intra-African trade is reported to be at a current low level of 15 percent[2], and agricultural production, which employs approximately 60 percent of the workforce, has actually been decreasing over the last 30 years.

Trade facilitation is defined by the World Trade Organization (WTO) as “the simplification, modernization and harmonization of export and import processes.” Getting food across borders safely is key to supporting markets and ensuring food supplies. ISO 22000 — a food safety management standard developed by the International Organization for Standardization — defines food safety as “related to the presence of foodborne hazards in food at the point of consumption (intake by the consumer). As the introduction of food safety hazards can occur at any stage of the food chain, adequate control throughout the food chain is essential. Thus, food safety in ensured through the combined efforts of all parties participating in the food chain.”

How can the right balance be achieved between trade facilitation and food security in a complementary manner that respects their high-level objectives of trade growth, preservation, improvement of existing systems, and protection of consumers’ health and safety? The answer to that question rests on the proper implementation of relevant tools, including the WTO Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS Agreement) and the WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA Agreement). These agreements provide a useful internationally agreed-upon framework for actors to negotiate and balance competing interests.

a) SPS Agreement: Dating back to the establishment of the WTO in January 1995, this agreement includes a number of food safety measures on agricultural products, both plant and animal-based. Those measures are focused on principles including, among others, risk assessment and SPS measures based on international standards and the harmonization of SPS measures.  

b) TFA Agreement: Having gone into effect in February 2017, this agreement contains a number of trade facilitation measures, including provisions to expedite the release and clearance of goods, customs compliance, technical assistance and capacity building. The WTO estimates that full implementation of the TFA is estimated to increase global trade by up to $1 trillion USD annually, particularly in the developing world.[3]

In the words of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations Director-General, Jose Graziano da Silva, “Food safety and food standards are crucial to unlock the potential of an important tool to fight hunger, which is trade.” The link between food safety and trade is made more evident through the issue of standards. Standards provide defined criteria and procedures that articulate minimum acceptable benchmarks for products — including food items — and services. Standards foster international trade when they are globally accepted and adopted in various markets. Harmonization of standards must, however, be done in a sensible manner that does not lead to additional trade costs.

To learn more about these agreements, please click on the following links:

WTO Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures

WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement

[1] According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), listeriosis is a serious infection usually caused by eating food contaminated by the bacterium Listeria monocytogenes. An estimated 1,600 people contract listeriosis each year, and about 260 die.

[2]African Economic Outlook 2017 (African Development Bank).

[3] World Trade Report 2015: Speeding up trade: benefits and challenges of implementing the WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement (https://www.wto.org/english/res_e/publications_e/wtr15_e.htm).