SPS/TBT Measures

The WTO Agreements on the Application of Sanitary (for protection of human and animal health) and Phytosanitary (for protection of plant health) Measures (SPS) and the Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT) aim to strike a balance between these competing uses of standards in international trade.

SPS Measures: Sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) measures are quarantine and biosecurity measures which are applied to protect human, animal or plant life or health from risks arising from the introduction, establishment and spread of pests and diseases and from risks arising from additives, toxins and contaminants in food and feed.

TBT Measures: The TBT (Technical Barriers to Trade) Agreement covers all technical regulations, voluntary standards and the procedures to ensure that these are met, including prevention & creation of unnecessary technical barriers to international trade, prevent adoption of protectionist measures, encourage global harmonisation and mutual recognition & enhance transparency, except when these are sanitary or phytosanitary measures are defined by the SPS Agreement. It is thus the type of measure which determines whether it is covered by the TBT Agreement, but the purpose of the measure which is relevant in determining whether a measure is subject to the SPS Agreement. 

Example : "Technical regulations on labelling concern the typeface of the label, grade or information on the contents. The information relating to health protection e.g. 'best before date' may be included in an SPS measure".


All countries maintain measures to ensure that food is safe for consumers, and to prevent the spread of pests or diseases among animals and plants. These sanitary measures can take many forms like requiring products to come from a disease-free area, inspection of products, specific treatment or processing of products, etc. Human, animal and plant health measures apply to domestically produced food or local animal and plant diseases, as well as to products coming from other countries. 

1. Protection or protectionism

SPS measures may result in restrictions on trade. Governments accept that some trade restrictions are necessary to ensure food safety, animal and plant health protection. But governments are sometimes pressured to go beyond what is needed for health protection to shield domestic producers from economic competition. Such pressure is to increase as other trade barriers are reduced as a result of the ‘Uruguay Round agreements’. A SPS restriction which is not required for health reasons can be used as a protectionist device and becomes difficult barrier to challenge. 

The basic aim of the SPS Agreement is to maintain the sovereign right of any government to provide the level of health protection but to ensure that these sovereign rights are not misused for protectionist purposes and do not result in unnecessary barriers to international trade. 

2. Justification of measures 

The SPS Agreement, permits governments to maintain proper SPS protection by reducing possible arbitrariness of decisions. It requires that SPS measures be applied only for ensuring food safety and animal and plant health. The agreement clarifies the factors which are be considered in the assessment of the risk. SPS measures should be based on the analysis and assessment of objective and accurate scientific data. 

3. International standards 

The SPS Agreement encourages governments to establish national measures consistent with international standards. This process is referred to as "harmonization". Most of the WTO’s member governments participate in the development of these standards. The standards are subject to international scrutiny and review. 

International standards are often higher than the national requirements of many countries but the SPS Agreement permits governments to choose not to use the international standards. However, if the national requirement results in a greater restriction of trade, a country may be asked to provide scientific reason, showing that the relevant international standard would not damage SPS protection. 

4. Adapting to conditions 

SPS measures sometimes vary, depending on the country of origin of the food, animal or plant product concerned. This is considered in the SPS Agreement. Governments should also recognize disease-free areas which may not correspond to political boundaries, and appropriately adapt their requirements to products from these areas. The agreement, however, checks unjustified discrimination in the use SPS measures, whether in favour of domestic producers or among foreign suppliers. 

5. Alternative measures 

An acceptable level of risk can be achieved in alternative ways. Among the alternatives on the assumption that they are technically and economically feasible and provide the same level of food safety or animal and plant health, therefore, governments should select those which are not more trade restrictive than required. Also, if another country can show that the measures it applies provide the same level of health protection. This helps ensure that protection is maintained while providing the greatest quantity and variety of safe foodstuffs for consumers, the best availability of safe inputs for producers, and healthy economic competition. 

6. Risk Assessment 

The SPS Agreement increases the transparency of its measures. Countries must establish SPS measures on the basis of an appropriate measurement of the actual risks involved. Although many governments already use risk assessment in their management of SPS measures, the SPS Agreement encourages the broader use of systematic risk assessment among all WTO member governments for all relevant products. 

7. Transparency 

Governments are required to notify other countries of any new or changed SPS requirements which affect trade, and to set up Enquiry Point to respond to requests for more information on new or existing measures. They also must open to scrutiny how they apply their food safety and animal and plant health regulations. Increased transparency also protects the interests of consumers, as well as of trading partners, from hidden protectionism.

A special Committee of WTO was established as a forum for the exchange of information among member governments on all aspects related to the implementation of the SPS Agreement. The SPS Committee reviews compliance with the agreement and maintains close co-operation with the appropriate technical organizations. In a trade dispute regarding a SPS measure, the normal WTO dispute settlement procedures are used. 

Benefits from implementation of the SPS agreement and its interest in developing countries:

  • Consumers in all countries benefit under SPS Agreement. It helps ensure, and in many cases enhances, the safety of their food as it encourages the systematic use of scientific information in this regard, thus reducing the scope for arbitrary and unjustified decisions.
  • More information will become available to consumers as a result of greater transparency in governmental procedures and on the basis for their SPS decisions. The elimination of unnecessary trade barriers would allow consumers to benefit from a better choice of safe foods.
  • Specific SPS requirements are most frequently applied on a bilateral basis between trading countries. Developing countries benefit from the SPS Agreement as it provides an international framework for SPS arrangements among countries. Without such an agreement, developing countries could be at a disadvantage when challenging unjustified trade restrictions.
  • Under the SPS Agreement, governments must accept imported products that meet their safety requirements, whether these products are the result of simpler, less complicated. Increased technical assistance to help developing countries in the area of SPS measures, whether bilateral or through international organizations, is also an element of the SPS Agreement. 
  • Exporters of agricultural products in all countries benefit from the elimination of unjustified barriers to their products. The SPS Agreement reduces uncertainty about the conditions for selling to a specific market. Efforts to produce safe food for another market should not be repelled by regulations imposed for protectionist purposes under the guise of health measures. 
  • Importers of food and other agricultural products also benefit from the greater certainty regarding border measures. The basis for SPS measures which restrict trade are made clearer by the SPS Agreement, as well as the basis for challenging requirements which may be unjustified. This also benefits the many processors and commercial users of imported food, animal or plant products. 

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