The number of food safety and plant health trade barriers plaguing U.S. agricultural exports is way up, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told a congressional committee recently.

“In the last 10 years, the number of sanitary and phytosanitary barriers we have had to deal with has increased from roughly 650 to close to 1,500 last year,” said Secretary Vilsack during a four hour appropriations hearing on the U.S. Department of Agriculture budget.

Countries that belong to the World Trade Organization manage such disagreements under the Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures, often called the SPS Agreement. This framework is meant to help iron out trade disputes based on food safety and animal or plant health issues.

“The reality is that when you’re the number one country in terms of agriculture and agricultural production and exports, countries find a lot of different ways to make things difficult for you,” said Vilsack.

The issue came up when agriculture appropriations subcommittee chairman Representative Jack Kingston (R-GA) brought up the fact that India continues to block American poultry exports over pathogen issues. Kingston asked if there was something USDA could do to help open the $300 million poultry market there, something that would help U.S. poultry producers.

“It’s very complicated and very frustrating,” said Vilsack, adding that the U.S. Trade Representative’s office has limited resources to fight what he says are unwarranted agricultural trade barriers.

In 2011, USTR published its second annual “Report on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures,” a 113 page document that outlines existing SPS issues with each U.S. trading partner.

According to USTR, the annual SPS Report was created “to respond to the concerns of U.S. farmers, ranchers, producers and workers who are running into SPS trade barriers as they seek to export high‐quality American agricultural products around the world.”

U.S. trade officials are working on a number of SPS issues that limit

agricultural exports, including trade bans on genetically engineered crops, and “unreasonable” residue limits for

pesticides in a variety of commodities. 

Many countries, including China, also still have restrictions in place out of concern for Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, otherwise known as BSE, or “mad cow” disease, and USTR works to eliminate such barriers, arguing that they are not based on science.

Food safety interventions can become SPS issues as well.

Russia continues to ban U.S. poultry over the widespread use of chlorine as a disinfectant during processing, even though USDA public health officials maintain that it completely safe. The European Union has banned chlorine baths for poultry since 1997.

One of the most high-profile and longest-running SPS disputes started in the late 1980s when the United States and EU battled over the use of certain growth-promoting hormones in beef production. The EU banned the practice, citing concerns about health risks, and refused to import beef raised using the drugs. The United States challenged the restriction arguing that it was not based on scientific evidence.

In 1998, a WTO panel found that the EU’s ban was not supported by science and therefore was not consistent with its obligation under the SPS Agreement. The EU refused to change its policy. For the next decade, the United States raised import duties on a number of EU products, including chocolate, truffles and cheeses.

In May 2009, the United States and the EU concluded a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that, according to USTR, “has enabled U.S. producers to gain additional duty‐free access to the EU market for high‐quality beef produced from U.S. cattle that have not received growth‐promoting hormones.”

In May 2011, the United States announced that it would drop all remaining punitive duties on EU goods in exchange for greater duty-free access for beef raised without additional hormones.