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Growth Promoter Debates Could Undermine Trade

by 5m Editor
6 July 2011, at 9:15am

GLOBAL - Fears are rising among World Trade Organization members that the failure of Codex Alimentarius to come to a decision over potentially safe levels of residues of the beta-agonist, ractopamine, in meat could undermine the whole system of setting global sanitary and phytosanitary standards.

WTO members debated last week whether the Organization’s rules on food safety are undermined by an international standard-setting body’s failure to agree on maximum residue limit for the feed additive.

The discussion in the Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) Measures Committee, which deals with food safety and animal and plant health, took place a week before the proposed standard is again on the agenda of the Codex Alimentarius Commission.

Codex, run jointly by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO), is one of three standard-setting bodies explicitly recognised by the WTO’s SPS Agreement.

The debate hinged on whether disagreement about setting a maximum residue limit for the feed additive ractopamine endangers the scientific basis of WTO rules or whether resorting only to a scientific opinion undermines the need for the rules to be more broadly based.

Ractopamine, a beta-agonist drug mixed with feed that boosts growth and promotes leanness in pigs and cattle, has been discussed in several SPS Committee meetings since October 2008 when it was first raised as a specific trade concern by the US about Chinese Taipei’s ban on meat from animals fed with the additive.

The US continued to pose questions to Chinese Taipei, including in this latest June 2011 meeting, but now since 2009 several Latin American countries have raised the issue more broadly under the heading “monitoring international standards” and in a paper, G/SPS/GEN/1092.

For the maximum residue limits, Costa Rica, the US and others believe scientific evidence shows some ractopamine residues are safe and want maximum residue limits (10 parts per billion for the main types of meat) to be approved in Codex.

They cite the scientific studies by the FAO-WHO Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA).

They also argue that 26 countries have allowed ractopamine to be used for many years, with no harmful effects. (The Codex standard would be recognized by the WTO even though members would still be free to set their own science-based standards.)

If Codex continues to fail to agree on the standard, despite scientific evidence, then the scientific basis of international standards will be undermined, WTO rules based on internationally-agreed standards risk becoming arbitrary and irrational and trade will become more uncertain, they said.

Sharing this view were Canada, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, the Philippines, Peru, Mexico and New Zealand.

The EU and China have said they are not ready for maximum residue limits. The two blocs that according to the EU account for 70 per cent of production and consumption of pig meat said the JECFA findings are not enough to justify standards that allow some residue.

They said they were committed to measures based on science.

But Codex requires other issues affecting consumer health to be taken into account, the EU said.

Asked what those other issues are, the EU said these issues should be discussed in Codex.

China said its studies indicate risks exist, for example for other types of pig meat, which the Chinese eat, and therefore countries should not rush into setting international standards without considering the issue carefully. Switzerland and Norway agreed. Chinese Taipei continued to defend its own ban.

Also in the committee, members continued to comment on each other’s SPS measures, part of the committee’s core function of monitoring how the SPS Agreement is being implemented, with the recurring themes of whether certain measures are based on science or international standards, and whether they are targeted more broadly than needed to deal with genuine risks.

There were a number of questions on issues that have been discussed before such as BSE mad cow disease, avian influenza, the new US food safety law and the EU’s novel foods regulation (March 2006 and subsequent meetings).

Consultations continued among members on how best to set up a system that would encourage members to make more use of mediation by the chairperson to resolve some of their differences, how to move forward on private sector standards now that five of 12 points have been agreed in the March meeting), and on actions they agreed to take as a result of the latest review of how the SPS Agreement is being implemented (improved co-operation between the SPS Committee and the three recognized standards setting bodies, including better coordination within countries; better monitoring of the use of international standards; and strengthening control, inspection and approval procedures).