Despite these provisions, the SPS Agreement still has major weaknesses in the lack of transparency in the definition and application of standards, which often results in requests for clarification. For example, the 16th Technical Consultation between Regional Plant Protection Organizations held in Nairobi (30 August to 3 September 2004) highlighted the need for explanatory documentation to accompany International Standard for Phytosanitary Measures (ISPM) 15, the international phytosanitary measures developed by the International Plant Protection Convention, to clarify many issues that cause disagreements and concern. This lack of clarity results in different rules in different countries regarding SPS restrictions such as inspection of imported products, specific treatment or processing of products, setting maximum allowable levels of pesticide residues or mycotoxins, and the permitted use of some food additives. These deliberate "flexibilities" in the SPS Agreement leave room for discretion, but also lead to trade disputes when products are treated differently in different markets. Several revisions have been made to ISPM 15, and these details are updated at the International Portal on Food Safety, Animal and Plant Health (

Lack of authoritative source from which information on standards can be obtained

At the onset of the SPS Agreement (available through the International Portal on Food Safety, Animal and Plant Health) in January 1995, all WTO Members assumed specific obligations that effectively prohibit the use of SPS measures as arbitrary or unjustifiable restrictions of trade. The obligation of each member includes the establishment of a "national enquiry point" and the designation of a national notification authority to ensure transparency on SPS matters. Familiarity with the WTO and other international standard bodies generally is low in West Africa and produce exporters often are unaware of relevant quality standards due to the absence or lack of recognition of such "enquiry points".

Complexity of SPS measures and issues

SPS measures and issues are becoming increasingly complex. In general, the SPS measures adopted by developed countries are considered incompatible with the traditional systems of production and marketing in developing countries. Developing countries view the costs of compliance to be high and sometimes prohibitive. For example, slight differences in sampling methods for the aflatoxin standard significantly influence the risk of rejection and illustrate both the increasing stringency of SPS measures and the complexity of testing methods (Jha, 2005). Many of these testing methods are relatively expensive and may be difficult to implement routinely in developing countries. Similarly, risk assessment methodologies are becoming increasingly complicated and cases with conflicts in the scientific data have yet to be resolved by WTO panels.

Capacity to challenge and defend positions on exports

The capacity to challenge and defend positions on exports regarding SPS issues often is very weak. This weakness results from inadequate human and capital resources, little information and inexperience. Private sector operators in West Africa have little or no capacity to influence the content and development of international standards even for their most important products. This inability to articulate and defend their interests also renders them vulnerable to changes in standards that may lack clarity in definition. Increased transparency in standards formulation requires that the views of the African countries be taken into account from their initial drafting to their ultimate implementation.

Lack of coherence in standards

There is a big difference between international standards and local or regional standards in many countries, with the harmonization within the EU as a notable exception (FAO, 2004), which can make exporting to multiple markets difficult. Discriminatory standards may limit trade by raising the costs of market entry, which eventually undermines global competition and imposes severe costs on consumers.

Costs of compliance

Other prominent issues include the changes in production costs, export revenues and profit margins as result of the SPS Agreement. The compliance costs for these international standards are prohibitive at both the level of the agencies responsible for standards development and enforcement as well as for the exporters and the producers. Thus, it is increasingly difficult to ensure compliance with the international standards. In some cases, standards agencies have found it difficult to develop, revise and implement relevant domestic standards and regulations in compliance with international standards and obligations. The major factors affecting compliance are insufficient financial resources and inadequate facilities, personnel, standards and technologies for African countries in general. There is a lack of adequate testing capability and much of that available is not internationally accredited (Waliyar et al., Chapter 31).

Table 3. Number of contraventions cited for US Food and Drug Administration import detentions, June 1996 to June 1997 [after Henson and Loader (2001)].

Reason for


Latin America





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