Africa is getting chairs at the World Trade Organization’s (WTO’s) table where food safety and animal and plant health issues are decided.

africa-apple-featured.jpgWTO is giving observer status to three regional organizations of African counties on its Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) Committee.  WTO’s new observers are the Economic Committee for West African States (ECOWAS), the Committee of the Sahel-Saharan States (CEN-SAD), and the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

About 300 trade issues involving food safety and animal and plant concerns have been raised in the WTO committee since it was formed in 1995.  The SPS Committee has dealt with avian flu, mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE), and the H1N1 flu virus.

African counties want the three regional organizations admitted as SPS observers because they help the continent’s nations comply with international standards and improve international markets.  Individual counties often find it difficult to attend all the meetings and stay current on SPS deliberations.

Regional observers will help them keep track of WTO.

WTO says the new observers will attend meetings on an “ad hoc” basis because the membership is still deliberating a common approach for observers across all WTO subjects.

The SPS Committee recently has been focused on private sector standards and the relationship between them and the SPS agreement with a focus on government standards.

The African organizations that have been given observer status have been able to tie this status in with the technical assistance they receive from developed countries on SPS issues.

The WTO committee has heard 290 issues involving food safety and animal and plant health since its inception 15 years ago.  The peak year for new cases was 2002 when the SPS Committee heard 42 new cases.  Last year, that number was 13.

Animal health concerns produce most of the cases.

SPS discussions are seen as a possible way of avoiding litigation for those that might involve legal disputes.

Recent agenda items have included Australia’s new import requirements for beef, the European Union’s warning requirements for artificial coloring, and India’s trade restrictions involving bird flu.