International norms and standards

Standards are a legitimate means of facilitating production and exchange. In 1961, Codex Alimentarius was developed as a single international reference point for food safety and quality. Similarly, international standards developed by the International Standards Organization (ISO) provide a basis for the choices of norms recognized in foreign markets.

The application of international norms and standards by countries has been controversial. This controversy is linked to the abuse of standards as non-tariff barriers to international trade and protection of domestic industries and markets. As noted by Zarrilli (1999), the abuse of standard setting can take the form of: (i) unjustified differential requirements in different markets, (ii) unnecessary expensive or time-consuming tests, and (iii) duplica-tive conformity assessment procedures.

The World Trade Organization (WTO) developed two new international agreements to address these concerns and regulate international trade. These are: (i) the WTO Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS Agreement); and (ii) the WTO Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT Agreement). These agreements are designed to minimize discriminatory and adverse effects of food regulations (Boakye-Yiadom, 2003). According to the Global Trade Network (GTN), standards affect trade in at least three ways: (i) They help to achieve social or public goals, e.g., health or safety standards may be established to regulate the production, sales, or importation of a good as a public health policy. (ii) They may be used to clearly define products, thus facilitating compatibility and usability. Finally, (iii) standard setting may be employed as a disguised tool for unfairly restricting trade. The SPS and TBT Agreements aim to regulate the first two effects, while minimizing the third (Boakye-Yiadom, 2003).

Increasingly stringent food safety and agricultural health standards in industrialized countries create major challenges for continued developing country success in international markets for high-value food products, such as fruits, vegetables, fish, meat, nuts and spices. Yet such standards have had a positive role, by providing the catalyst and incentives for the modernization of export supply and regulatory systems and for the adoption of safer and more sustainable production and processing practices (World Bank, 2005).

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