Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) Concerns in Agricultural Trade

Publication Date: December 2008

Publisher: Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service


Research Area: Trade



Sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) measures refer to any of the laws, rules, standards, and procedures that governments employ to protect humans, other animals, and plants from diseases, pests, toxins, and other contaminants. Examples of SPS measures include meat and poultry processing standards to reduce pathogens, residue limits for pesticides in foods, and regulation of agricultural biotechnology.

SPS measures can be barriers to trade in agricultural, food, and other products, according to the World Trade Organization (WTO) and others. Notable U.S. disputes include a European Union (EU) ban on U.S. meats treated with growthpromoting hormones, which a WTO dispute panel ruled had not been supported by a risk assessment; and a recent EU moratorium on approvals of biotechnology products. Foreign countries often object to various U.S. SPS measures as well.

Multilateral trade rules allow governments to adopt measures to protect human, animal, or plant life or health, provided that they do not discriminate or use them as disguised protectionism. This principle was clarified in 1994 by WTO members' adoption, along with the other so-called Uruguay Round Agreements, of the Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures. This document sets out the basic rules for ensuring that each country's food safety and animal and plant health laws and regulations are transparent, scientifically defensible, and fair.

The United States also has signed, or is negotiating, numerous regional and bilateral free trade agreements (FTAs) that may contain SPS language. The United States participates actively in the three major international scientific bodies designated by the WTO to deal with SPS matters: the Codex Alimentarius Commission for food safety, the Office of International Epizootics (OIE) for animal health and diseases, and the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC) for plant health. These bodies meet often to discuss threats to human and agricultural health, evaluate SPS-related disputes, and develop common, scientifically based SPS standards. Such standards can provide guidance for countries formulating their own national SPS measures and help resolve trade disputes.

Although U.S. WTO officials frequently cite the benefits of SPS cooperation under trade agreements, some, among them food safety and environmental advocacy organizations, have been skeptical. They have argued that implementation of the agreements can result in "downward harmonization" rather than upgraded health and safety standards. Defenders counter that trade rules explicitly recognize the right of individual nations to enact stronger protections than international guidelines if they believe they are appropriate and are justified by scientific risk assessment.

In Congress, which must approve legislation if a trade agreement is to be implemented, many Members are interested in how the FTAs might address SPS matters. These Members are concerned that as trade agreements lower agricultural tariffs, more countries may turn to SPS measures to protect their farmers from import competition. This report will not be updated.