- Research Handbooks on the WTO series
Edited by Geert Van Calster and Denise Prévost
Chapter 10: Pre-market approval systems and the SPS Agreement
Food safety is a key policy concern for many governments and their citizens and its importance is only heightened by the ever increasing flow of goods across international borders. As countries seek to ensure the safety of their food supply, trade friction may arise where measures are taken to restrict or otherwise control imports of food stuffs. The imposition of trade restrictions to ensure the safety of food and protect public health has long been recognised by international trade rules as a necessary, although qualified, limitation on trade. The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT ) in Article XX(b) allows Members to enact measures that violate the substantive obligations of the Agreement if they are “necessary to protect human, animal and plant life and health”, so long as they are not “applied in a manner which would constitute arbitrary or unjustifiable discrimination between countries where the same conditions prevail, or a disguised restriction on international trade”. This provision was negotiated in the 1940s and by the late 1980s, countries recognised that despite the qualifier as to how measures must be applied, there was still room for countries to enact protectionist measures in the name of health. Not only was it perceived that there was room to manouevre around the rules, but many considered that countries were particularly likely to do so in the area of food stuffs where they often face significant domestic political pressure to protect their agricultural sectors.
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