Evaluating effects of world trade agreements on public health

Evaluating effects of world trade agreements on consumer health

The Sanitary and Phytosanitary Agreement (SPS Agreement) was part of the Uruguay Round Agreements, and came into force on 1 January 1995, in response to a concern that SPS measures may be used for trade protectionist purposes. For the SPS, measures must be necessary for the protection of human, animal, plant life or health, and not more trade-restrictive than required to achieve the appropriate level of protection. In addition, the SPS Agreement permits interim measures that are based on the precautionary principle. Under the SPS Agreement each member has the right to choose its own level of protection of consumer health and to apply the corresponding sanitary measures. Members may then resort to restrictive trade measures in order to ensure that level of protection, provided such measures are based on international standards or sound scientific advice.

Under the SPS Agreement, there are special accommodations made for developing countries, especially least developed countries. Where a SPS measure allows for phased introduction, longer time-frames for compliance should be accorded to products of interest to developing country members so that opportunities for their exports are maintained. Moreover, the Committee on SPS Measures is authorised to grant developing country members, upon request, specified, time-limited exceptions in whole or in part from obligations under the Agreement, taking into account their financial, trade and development needs. Where measures affect the importation or imported products from least developed countries, the application of the SPS Agreement can be delayed for five years from the entry into force of the agreement. Developing countries are accorded a similar reprieve of two years where the application of the agreement is prevented by a lack of technical expertise, technical infrastructure or resources. The transition period allows these countries to impose SPS measures of their own without the necessity of establishing a scientific justification for the measures. Under both the SPS Agreement and Technical Barriers to Trade Agreement (TBT), assistance is to be given to developing countries in the development of international standards and the preparation and application of technical regulations and standards.

The European Union's position on consumer health and the WTO seeks to improve the existing position by the following means: 1. to promote the introduction of international SPS standards and to enhance their credibility; 2. to ensure the participation of all interested parties, including consumers in the decision making process of establishing international food standards; and 3. to clarify and strengthen the existing WTO framework for the use of the precautionary principle in the area of food safety.


International standard setting may be to the economic advantage of developing countries, provided that they are represented in the forums where standards are determined, and are provided with the necessary technical, administrative and financial resources to meet such standards in their export products. This is a particular concern with respect to agricultural exports, on which many developing countries are heavily dependent. The introduction of higher SPS may have a positive impact on consumer health, where the product is also being produced for domestic consumption. In the same way, consumer health protection will be increased, through the higher SPS standards that are embodied in imported foodstuffs.

The EU is affected by the current SPS Agreement, in the lack of clarity concerning the precautionary principle, which it wishes to see made more operational, so that scientific certainty is not a prerequisite for more protective measures. The beef hormone appellation body recognised the existence of the precautionary principle, but did not give it effect in the judgement. The non-applicability of the precautionary principle for SPS trade restraining measures allows for the importation of products which could have a damaging health impact. The acceptance of the precautionary principle will allow the EU to preserve high levels of health protection, without the need for scientific certainty. As a result, there would be a positive social impact. The restriction of imports would also have a positive economic effect in increasing producer incomes, but consumers may be worse off, if prices rise. There may be negative environmental effects linked to increased production, particularly of agricultural food products.


The adoption of international standards in developing countries would enable the EU to remove trade restraints on the importation of non-conforming items.

Type Classification:
F: Exceptional strategies
Related UN Sustainable Development Goals:
GOAL 3: Good Health and Well-beingGOAL 4: Quality EducationGOAL 12: Responsible Consumption and ProductionGOAL 16: Peace and Justice Strong Institutions