The United States raised four new issues at a meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO) committee on food safety and animal and plant health this past month.

The Committee on Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) Measures also discussed 12 previously raised issues at the meeting on June 24 to 26.

Specific trade concerns (STCs) identified by the U.S. were Thailand’s draft list of hazardous substances regarding food containing pesticide residues, India’s new requirements for animal feed, China’s administrative measures for registration of overseas manufacturers of imported food and Vietnam’s regulations on animal feeds and husbandry — the latter was jointly raised with Argentina.

Thirteen other new STCs included Saudi Arabia’s temporary suspension of Brazilian poultry exporting plants raised by Brazil, Costa Rica’s import restriction on dairy products raised by Mexico, general restrictions on imports of chocolate and cocoa products due to maximum levels of cadmium raised by Peru, and Nepal’s import ban on energy drinks raised by Thailand.

Call for delay to EU rules
Some exporting countries expressed concerns at import requirements that were more stringent than necessary.

Many countries called on the European Union to suspend for 12 months and review processes for determining maximum residue levels (MRLs) for plant protection products because of potential negative impact on imports of fruits and vegetables from third countries. They also called for a delay to MRL reductions planned for 2020 in response to the trade and economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

A group of 33 members said in the current circumstances, implementation of SPS measures that create additional restrictions or burdens on international trade is a challenge that hampers worldwide economic recovery efforts, especially in developing countries.

The EU, which is the largest common market in the world and biggest importer of fruits and vegetables, said the standards applied are based on studies addressing potential risk to consumer health. An EU official reiterated that all MRL-related processes are notified to WTO members with time for food businesses to prepare for the modified requirements from existing standards.

During the meeting, WTO members stressed the importance of ensuring that trade in agricultural and food products is not overly restricted in global crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Of 175 notifications related to COVID-19, a quarter were under the SPS agreement.

Initially, measures were mainly trade restrictions and increased certification requirements. They were notified as emergency measures and temporarily restricted imports and/or transit of terrestrial or aquatic animals from affected areas to limit spread of the virus.

Examples of emergency notifications are by the Philippines on meat commodities, from Switzerland covering all foodstuffs on the Swiss market and by Korea on wild animals considered possible intermediate hosts for COVID-19 transmission.

Other notices were about temporary relaxation of labelling requirements for food products and measures to be implemented in organic certification processes. They also covered guidelines on the approval of SPS import clearance for meat commodities. Since April, most notifications from members have related to measures to facilitate trade, now representing almost half of the total.

Coronavirus product testing
The U.S. and EU also hit out at measures such as declarations that products are coronavirus free and additional testing put in place by China.

A U.S. statement said it was receiving increasing reports of COVID-19 product testing for food and agricultural commodities, including meat, seafood, fresh fruit, and bulk grains. Some U.S. exporters reported some importing countries are testing 100 percent of shipments.

The U.S. delegation said the country is “deeply concerned” about actions to restrict imports of food and agricultural products, a move causing escalating confusion and consternation across supply chains.

Several foreign embassies received a letter requesting that authorities suspend exports from facilities that “identify COVID-19 cases or suspected cases” and notify the importing government of infections in factory workers.

Importers were advised to request that foreign suppliers of agricultural products sign “Letters of Commitment” showing the importer of the products will ensure that food items are “not contaminated by COVID-19 and to ensure food safety” among other things.

“We are also unaware of any notification to the public, to the trading community or to other governments of measures to implement COVID-19 testing requirements for imported foods. Nor are we aware of any public notification of similar testing requirements applied for domestically produced foods,” said the U.S. delegation.

A statement from the European Union said it regretted the outbreak has led to a few countries adopting trade restrictions for agri-food products that are not science based, targeted or proportionate to risk. These additional requirements include tests, inspections or certificates.

“In particular, we would like to share our deepest concern about one very recent development and the request by one WTO member, which is also one of the largest global trading countries for agri-food products, of stringent additional verification measures on all imported food products,” it read.

“If individual members insist on additional, unnecessary verification measures, the situation could easily lead to a global spiral toward imposing unjustified import controls in the agri-food chain. This would do nothing to control the current pandemic but will be very harmful to food security, food prices and global trade relations and it will also undermine the trust of the public.”

The SPS Committee is scheduled to hold its next meeting on Nov. 5 and 6.

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)