TWN Info Service on WTO and Trade Issues (July09/05)
07 July 2009
Third World Network

Trade: WTO SPS Committee discusses trade responses to swine flu
Published in SUNS #6728 dated 26 June 2009

Geneva, 25 Jun (Kanaga Raja) -- The current swine flu pandemic, officially known as influenza A(H1N1), with 55,867 confirmed cases and 238 deaths worldwide as of 24 June, featured at a meeting of the WTO Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS) Committee, with several exporting countries complaining about some of the restrictions imposed by importing countries on live pigs and pork products in response to the flu outbreak.

The discussion at a formal meeting of the committee on 23 June on trade measures imposed in response to the flu pandemic was one of many other trade concerns that surfaced at the 23-24 June meeting of the committee, which deals specifically with food safety and animal and plant health.

According to trade officials, at the formal meeting, Canada, Mexico, Japan, the US, New Zealand, the EU, Brazil, Paraguay, Australia and the Dominican Republic argued that import bans on live pigs and pork products are unjustified for dealing with the flu pandemic.

They praised countries that had based their responses on science and voiced criticism of countries that had imposed trade restrictions. They argued that the restrictions have no scientific justification.

According to trade officials, some of these countries referred to a joint statement issued on 7 May by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) and the World Health Organization (WHO).

(The joint statement by the three organizations says: "Influenza viruses are not known to be transmissible to people through eating processed pork or other food products derived from pigs... Pork and pork products, handled in accordance with good hygienic practices recommended by the WHO, Codex Alimentarius Commission and the OIE, will not be a source of infection." The joint statement added: "Authorities and consumers should ensure that meat from sick pigs and pigs found dead are not processed or used for human consumption under any circumstances.")

Some members also referred to a joint statement issued on 2 May by the three organizations mentioned above together with the WTO.

(This joint statement says: "In light of the spread of influenza A(H1N1), and the rising concerns about the possibility of this virus being found in pigs and the safety of pork and pork products, we stress that pork and pork products, handled in accordance with good hygienic practices recommended by the WHO, FAO, Codex Alimentarius Commission and the OIE, will not be a source of infection."

(It further states: "To date, there is no evidence that the virus is transmitted by food. There is currently therefore no justification in the OIE Terrestrial Animal Health Standards Code for the imposition of trade measures on the importation of pigs or their products."

(When this statement was issued, with the WTO aligning itself with the three other organizations in issuing the joint statement, the WTO was criticized by a prominent US trade law expert and Professor of Law at George Washington University Law school, Prof. Steve Charnovitz, who challenged the trade body's competence in this area, both in terms of trade law and health safety.

(In a post titled, "Mission Creep at the WTO", on the International Economic Law and Policy Blog on 4 May, the trade law expert amongst others questioned whether the statement was international trade law, and whether it could be used in a WTO dispute case to preclude a defence to a trade measure on pigs if it were challenged in the WTO. If the statement is law, Prof. Charnovitz questioned whether it is within the competence of the WTO to say so. Also, Charnovitz asked what authority the WTO had to join in the statement. Did the WTO enact it under WTO Agreement Article V: I authority, and if so, does that make the statement a covered agreement, he asked.

(He also wondered on the implications of the WTO Secretariat or someone in the Secretariat signing on to such a statement without the express authority of the General Council. He also asked whether at least the WTO Committee on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures had signed off on the action by the WTO. Using this as a precedent, could the WTO join an ILO statement on the need for fundamental workers' rights or a UN Framework Convention on Climate Change statement on the need for emission reductions, Charnovitz further wondered. - See SUNS #6694 dated 6 May.)

At the formal meeting, some members observed that a number of countries with import restrictions have cases of the flu in humans inside their territories (but no restrictions on domestic trade).

According to trade officials, the US argued that not a single case of the current outbreak of swine flu "has even been tentatively linked" to eating pork or handling pigs.

Several members, including Mexico (which described its actions in detail), also said that their swine herds have not caught the disease despite its presence in humans.

According to trade officials, Canada said that it was misleading that the disease has been called "swine flu" even though the pandemic is among humans.

(The swine flu outbreak had prompted calls by the pork industry to change the name of the flu from swine flu to H1N1 flu, as pork producers were being adversely affected, and the WHO adopted this official terminology. However, some commentators were critical of this move. In an article titled "Pork industry is blurring the science of swine flu" by Deborah MacKenzie in the New Scientist on 30 April, the writer says that it is clear that the swine flu virus has come from pigs. The article pointed out that the virus "comes from a tribe of flu viruses that emerged in US pigs in 1998 and became the dominant pig flu in North America."

(The New Scientist article noted the power of the pork industry in that even the top US health officials at the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention have come under visible pressure not to call it swine flu. Referring to some latest scientific details, the writer says that it is clearer than ever that there is a direct link from pigs to the human swine flu virus. - See SUNS #6694.)

At the formal SPS Committee meeting, some of the countries with restrictions (Ukraine, Indonesia, China and Jordan) said that the measures were temporary and had been lifted or would be lifted when scientific evidence had been examined.

According to trade officials, China said that it had to act urgently because of its large vulnerable population, the burden on its public health system, the importance of pigs and pork, and the fact that the H1N1 virus shares some genetic make-up with influenza that affects pigs.

Several of the exporting countries also complained that many of the countries imposing restrictions have not informed fellow members through the WTO.

Mexico said that 20 countries, including 14 WTO members, have restricted its exports and seven still have measures in place: Armenia, Bahrain, China, Gabon, Indonesia, Jordan and Surinam.

(According to trade officials, so far, five countries have formally notified the WTO: Albania, China, Ecuador, Jordan and Ukraine.)

Other specific trade concerns were also raised at the meeting, including restrictions arising from mad cow disease and bird flu.

According to trade officials, the committee also moved towards a possible agreement on temporary guidelines for members to use the Chairperson, Ms Miriam Chaves of Argentina, as a mediator in order to avoid formal legal disputes - strengthening the committee's role in settling differences between members in specific trade issues.

Members agreed that they would look at a draft at the next meeting of the committee in October.