Have New Trading Rules for Agriculture Delivered the Goods

8 March 1999

Should bovine semen from the Isle of Jersey or salmon from Canada be allowed into New Zealand? How about chicken meat from overseas?

These are the sort of decisions which New Zealand - through the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry - regularly has to make. Its decisions are based on New Zealand's obligations under a key international agreement known as the Sanitary/Phytosanitary Agreement (SPS Agreement for short).

The SPS Agreement sets the ground-rules for less restrictive trade in animal and plant products by requiring decisions about their entry to be made on the basis of formal risk assessment. Sanitary refers to animal and human health, phytosanitary to plant health.

The agreement aims to have decisions about whether or not animal or plant products should be allowed into a country, based on sound science and the carefully assessed risk of them bringing diseases into the importing country. It establishes principles which countries are committed to uphold when they work to protect health while trading in plants, animals and their products.

What have these new trading rules for agriculture meant for New Zealand? The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry has organised a free seminar in Wellington tomorrow to discuss the question of what the SPS Agreement has done for New Zealand since its inception.

Participants will include world leaders in agricultural industries, politicians, and anyone interested in trade policy and the future of New Zealand's agricultural markets. One hundred and thirty people are already registered.

As a country reliant on trade, all New Zealanders growing plant and animal products for export should understand how the SPS Agreement works and how it can improve our access to overseas markets.


More than 130 nations have joined the World Trade Organisation, and are thus committed to upholding the Sanitary and Phytosanitary agreement. Before the agreement came into force in 1995, New Zealand exporters were frustrated by dubious import restrictions imposed by overseas governments to protect their domestic competition from international competition.

With the SPS Agreement now in force, it is more difficult for countries to use non-scientific health measures as trade protection measures. Restrictions on the imports of animal and plant products can only be made to the extent that it is required to protect the health of the importing country's animal, plant and human population. Where conditions are imposed, they will be based on a formal risk assessment process using scientific principles.

For New Zealand, the SPS Agreement has opened up many previously closed markets to our exporters, as overseas governments bring their trade practices in line with SPS rules. Lower compliance costs are incurred by our producers, with the agreement allowing us to meet our trading partners importing requirements by using our own methods, and not having to reproduce costly overseas requirements.

For New Zealand, the Agreement has:

  • sped up the handling of New Zealand products at the Canadian border, as checks delayed the release of our seafoods onto their market and reduced its shelf life;
  • saved New Zealand kiwfruit exporters considerable costs by demonstrating to our trade partners that the country is free of fruit fly species, thus making it unnecessary to require fruit be treated after harvest for fruit fly; and
  • allowed pig exports from the South Island to resume because Aujeszky's disease in pigs is present in the North Island only. Using SPS agreement provisions, regionalisation' of export restrictions is possible.

The SPS Agreement also brings obligations. If we want the Agreement to work to our advantage in overseas markets, we must apply the same principles to items entering our domestic market.

While we cannot afford to expose New Zealand's primary industries to undue risk, aspiring to zero risk would affectively mean closing New Zealand's borders to people as well as produce. This is unrealistic. MAF works to reduce risk by developing technically sound import conditions.

Risk analysis is the key to the process as a framework for standard setting. Opening up a new market can be the result of months, and at times years of technical work by specialists (microbiology, veterinary epidemiology, engineering, statistics), at each end of the proposed trade route. A risk analysis only looks at the scientific justification for allowing or not allowing trade in each case.

For example :

  • imports of ocean-caught Canadian salmon (headed and gutted, fillets, either chilled or frozen) into New Zealand was allowed in 1995 on the basis of a risk analysis;
  • an import health standard to allow the importation of cattle semen from the Island of Jersey (United Kingdom) is currently being developed by MAF after a risk analysis assessment showed it could be safely imported; and
  • MAF risk analysis on the potential disease risk from proposed importations of chicken meat is to be opened for public submissions later this month.

For a closer look at the SPS agreement and its affect on trade, media are invited to attend the seminar tomorrow.

Speakers include:

  • Dr Alex Thiermann, chairman of the World Trade Organisation's SPS committee, and Senior Trade Coordinator, APHIS International Services (US Department of Agriculture), Brussels

    Topic: Four years of the SPS Agreement, what have we learned, what is next?

  • Dr Norman Willis, Canada, president of the international committee of the world organisation for animal health (OIE).

    Topic: The new role of the OIE in international trade

  • Dr Joan Arnoldi, associate administrator of the US Department of Agriculture's animal and plant health inspection service.

    Topic: Does the SPS agreement deliver the goods for nations which are major importers of agricultural commodities?

Date: Friday March 19, 1999

Venue: National Library Auditorium, corner Aitken and Molesworth Street, Wellington.

Time: 9am -1pm



Last Updated: 10 September 2010

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