The WTO Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) Agreement allows member countries to impose import restrictions to protect animal and plant health and human food safety.  The Obama Administration has just issued its third annual Report on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures highlighting policies that appear to be used principally to restrain U.S. agricultural exports rather than address food safety concerns.  Many of these are long standing issues with mind numbing details.

Canada is our number one export market this year and U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk’s office did not identify any SPS issues that were having a significant impact on U.S. exports.  Our other NAFTA partner, Mexico, is the second largest market and has four serious SPS issues.  Mexico continues to limit beef imports from the U.S. to animals 30 months of age or less.  They continue to delay implementing burdensome testing at the border of all palletized cardboard boxes of pork until new regulations for import inspection are developed.  Uncertainty about the new rules and when they would be implemented has raised concerns among exporters.  Potato shipments are limited to a 16 mile corridor along the border.  Stone fruit imports are limited under a “California plan” that requires extra inspectors at the farm level to control the oriental fruit moth and other pests.

As the third largest export market for the U.S., China received plenty of space in the report.  Some of the issues like beef and biotechnology were similar to other countries.  China banned U.S. beef imports immediately after the discovery of BSE in December of 2003.  After promising to renew imports, they have failed to follow through.  China imports biotech crops, mostly soybeans, and grows biotech cotton, but requires the approval process for use of a biotech event in China to begin only after it has been approved in the originating country.

China bans imports from the U.S. of pork containing any residue of the U.S. approved drug ractopamine, even when trace amounts are below the U.S. maximum residue limit (MRL) and the proposed Codex MRL.  While U.S. dairy exports continue, the two governments have not reached agreement on a new export certificate consistent with OIE (World Organization for Animal Health) and Codex guidelines.  China has imposed a zero tolerance limit for the presence of salmonella, listeria and other pathogens in poultry meat and products, even though food safety scientists agree that eliminating pathogens in raw meat is not possible.

The two countries have a protocol for U.S.-origin non-ruminant derived animal fats and feeds (including pet foods), but China’s Ministry of Agriculture maintains a duplicative and cumbersome product-based registration process that inhibits or prevents imports.  Imports of apples, pears, strawberries and potatoes are curtailed or totally stopped by various pest issues.

Japan is the fourth largest export market for U.S. agriculture.  Only beef from animals 20 months old or younger is allowed to be imported.  The Japanese government has begun reconsideration of that policy with a risk assessment by the Japanese Food Safety Commission.  Many food additives widely used in the U.S. are not allowed in Japan and severely limit imports.  Some additional additives have been approved recently, but more needs to be done.  Japan classifies fungicides applied post‐harvest as food additives and requires them to undergo a separate risk assessment for the same ones applied pre-harvest.  The two processes can take as long as six years and are inconsistent with Codex standards.  Japan’s handling of MRL violations place a burden of industry-wide surveillance for a product after a violation and creates risks of trade disruptions.   The U.S. also takes issue with Japan on rice, poultry meat, potatoes, pears and cherries.

The EU is the fifth largest export market for the U.S.  Importation and use of biotech crops face major trade barriers.  The European Food Safety Authority takes more time than other countries’ comparable agencies to do a scientific assessment, but has always concluded that biotech crops are safe.  The problems have been with the regulatory processes of the EU and member countries.  The U.S. has also had a long-running dispute with the EU on beef raised with growth-promoting hormones where the science has been right, but the EU regulatory process has thwarted access.  Similar problems have arisen over pathogen reduction treatment for beef and poultry meat.  The beef case is being handled administratively, while the poultry case is in the WTO dispute resolution process.  U.S. pork is caught in an expensive effort to show meat does not have ractopamine residue.  The U.S. is also involved in disputes on food color additives, cherries, animal byproducts and somatic cell counts in milk.

Russia will likely become a WTO member this summer and the report highlighted the most important issues for the U.S.  Russia has an approval process for biotech crops, but implementation of the process is of concern.  They have zero tolerance for salmonella, listeria and coliforms, but as noted earlier, guaranteeing that in raw meat is not possible.  Russia has a similar policy for unapproved veterinary drugs and near-zero policy for approved drugs.  Beef and beef products must come from animals 30 months of age or younger.  Pork products have a near-zero tolerance for the tetracycline group of antibiotics and must be frozen or tested for trichinosis.  Imports of chlorine-treated chickens have been banned.  U.S. dairy products have been banned since 2010 because U.S. exporters are not on an approved list.

The U.S. is already in WTO consultations with India concerning restrictions on poultry products because of concerns about high pathogen avian influenza.  India also places unwarranted SPS requirements on milk product imports from the U.S.

This short review of the highlights of SPS issues is enough to frustrate anyone interested in increased U.S. exports, particularly of animal products and fruits.  The WTO SPS Agreement is generally regarded as high quality and based on sound science.  Many of the scientific assessment agencies, like the European Food Safety Agency, are considered fair arbitrators of the science.  The problems center on the political will to follow the science rather than the easier route of protectionism.  USTR Kirk and his team will have a never ending task again in 2012.

Ross Korves is an economic policy analyst with Truth About Trade and Technology