Understanding Sanitary and Phytosanitary Checks

April 18, 2023
Understanding Sanitary and Phytosanitary Checks

Problem: How do you ensure that your country’s consumers are being supplied with food that is safe to eat — “safe” by the standards you consider appropriate? And at the same time, how can you ensure that strict health and safety regulations are not being used as an excuse for protecting domestic producers? 

World Trade Organization, Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures: Introduction

This is the core issue that sanitary and phytosanitary checks aim to address. In international trade, ensuring that products meet certain safety and health standards is crucial, and this is where Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) checks come into play.

These checks are put in place to ensure that the food we eat and the plants we grow are safe and healthy, for both humans and animals. These are the checks that the UK is considering when it published plans for new post-Brexit controls in April 2023.

There is a delicate balance that must be maintained. On one hand, it is important to ensure that consumers are protected from unsafe products; on the other, it is important to prevent regulations from being used as a means of protectionism, which can stifle international trade.

As expert and independent trade consultants, we provide bespoke and independent guidance in all matters pertaining to your cross-border operations. Today, we’ll explore the details of SPS checks, their impact on international trade, and how businesses can ensure compliance with SPS requirements.

What Are SPS Measures?

The World Trade Organization (WTO) defines SPS measures as “any measure applied to protect human, animal or plant life or health from risks arising from the entry, establishment or spread of pests, diseases, disease-carrying organisms or disease-causing organisms, or from the entry, establishment or spread of a disease or pest.”

SPS measures are a set of requirements in place to protect human, animal, and plant life or health from the risks associated with pests, diseases, or contaminants in food and other agricultural products.

These measures are particularly important in the context of international trade, as they ensure that products meet the necessary safety and health standards before they can be imported or exported.

SPS measures include a range of procedures, inspections, certifications, and other requirements that must be met before products can be traded: for example, an exporting country may need to provide a phytosanitary certificate, which certifies that the plants or plant products being exported are free from pests and/or diseases that could harm the importing country’s plant life.

SPS measures are established through international agreements, such as the Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures Agreement of the World Trade Organization (WTO), which provides a framework for member countries to develop and implement SPS measures.

It’s important to note that most countries use their own regulations and guidelines, which must be followed, to incorporate these measures.

Why Are They Important in International Trade?

Sanitary and phytosanitary checks are vital in international trade as they ensure that the products being imported and exported comply with the necessary health and safety standards.

Here are some key reasons why SPS checks are important for importers and exporters:

  • Protect consumers: The regulations protect consumers from potential health risks that could arise from consuming contaminated food or products that are not up to standard.
  • Ensure fair competition: SPS checks ensure that all importers and exporters adhere to the same health and safety standards, creating a level playing field for businesses.
  • Prevent the spread of pests and diseases: SPS checks prevent the introduction and spread of pests and diseases that could harm plant and animal life, as well as the environment.
  • Maintain international trade relationships: Failure to comply with SPS measures can lead to trade disputes and damaged relationships between trading partners, potentially resulting in economic losses for businesses.

SPS: Protecting Human, Animal, & Plant Health

Sanitary and phytosanitary measures are in place to protect human, animal, and plant health. Without them, the spread of diseases, pests, and contaminants could have devastating effects on health and the environment.

Here are a few examples of how SPS measures protect us:

Food Safety

SPS measures ensure that food products are free from harmful contaminants and pathogens. In the UK, foodborne illnesses are estimated to affect 2.4 million people each year (Food Standards Agency).

SPS measures such as inspection, testing, and certification can prevent the spread of foodborne illnesses and protect public health.

Animal Health

SPS measures protect animals from the spread of diseases and pests.

For example, in 2001, the spread of foot-and-mouth disease in the UK resulted in the culling of over 6 million animals, costing the economy billions of pounds.

SPS measures such as quarantine, vaccination, and testing can prevent the spread of diseases and protect animal welfare.

Plant Health

SPS standards also protect plants from the spread of pests and diseases; for example, the tomato industry in several countries has been threatened by the introduction of the South American tomato leafminer. SPS measures such as inspection, quarantine, and eradication can prevent the spread of pests and protect plant health.

The Regulatory Framework Governing SPS Measures

While the primary aim of sanitary and phytosanitary measures is to protect human, animal, and plant health, the regulations also impact the trade of goods.

The World Trade Organization (WTO) established the SPS Agreement to provide a framework for SPS measures, ensuring they are not used as a means of protectionism but are morally justified and based on science.

  • Protection vs protectionism: While all governments understand that some trade restrictions are necessary in order to safeguard human, animal and plant health, they may sometimes be pressured by third-party groups with an interest in protecting domestic organisations from economic competition. SPS measures take into account this possibility.
  • Justification: SPS measures also require governments not to carry out decisions for any other reason than the protection of health. This combats arbitrary application and encourages consistent decisions.
  • International standards. The WTO Sanitary and Phytosanitary Agreement aims for governments to meet international standards in the development of their own legislation.
  • Context and conditions: Owing to climate, the existence of pests or diseases, or current food safety conditions, it is not always possible to impose SPS measures. For this reason, requirements can vary, in response to individual conditions.
  • Alternative measures: In general, SPS allows governments to explore alternative means of health protection provided they are “technically and economically feasible.”
  • Risk assessments: Nations are required to establish SPS measures on the basis of a reasonable assessment of real-world risks.
  • Transparency: Finally, the WTO recommends that all countries are obliged to notify other nations regarding any changes to requirements, especially where it may affect trade.

How to Ensure Ongoing SPS Compliance: Best Practices

Ensuring ongoing SPS compliance can be a complex task, but it is essential for any business involved in international trade. In general, we’d strongly recommend seeking specialist trade consultancy services to help you through. Here at clearBorder, our experts are well-versed in the finer details of SPS requirements, and we’d be more than happy to discuss your specific operations.

Beyond this, here are some general tips to help you stay compliant:

  1. Stay up to date: Regularly check for updates on SPS regulations and requirements in your destination markets.
  2. Keep accurate records: Keep detailed records of all SPS-related activities, including inspections, certifications, and treatments.
  3. Work with trusted partners: Choose trading partners who prioritise SPS compliance and have a good track record.
  4. Plan ahead: Allow plenty of time for SPS checks and inspections to avoid delays and unexpected costs.
  5. Invest in training: Ensure that your staff is trained on SPS regulations and procedures, so they can help ensure compliance at every stage of the supply chain. Our Border Ready Food and Animal Products module may be of particular interest on this front.

Remember, compliance with SPS measures is not only a legal obligation but also crucial for protecting human, animal, and plant health. By prioritising sanitary and phytosanitary checks, you can minimise risks, maintain trade relationships, and build a reputation for reliability in the global marketplace.

Trading Seamlessly Across Borders

SPS checks are vital for international trade, ensuring the protection of human, animal, and plant health. The measures also facilitate fair trade and create a level playing field for businesses. Compliance with SPS requirements can be challenging; but it is essential to avoid costly delays or rejections.

By seeking independent trade advice from clearBorder, businesses can ensure they are meeting animal and plant health regulations and accessing global markets.

Our team of experts can provide tailored guidance on SPS compliance, risk management, and documentation requirements. Whether you need assistance obtaining export health certificates, advice on trading obligations with the European Union, or help with any other trade-related activities, we’re here to help. Contact us today to learn more about our services and how we can support your business.