The World Trade Organization (WTO) has agreed to adopt a new mediation procedure to better help member countries settle their contentious differences over various food safety and animal-plant health matters.
The voluntary procedure (also referred to as “ad hoc consultations”), is aimed at helping prevent concerns about a range of food safety and health issues from becoming non-tariff barriers that hinder the smooth flow of trade between importers and exporters. Concerns of this sort may involve issues such as maximum pesticide residues in food to preventing the spread of pests such as fruit fly and diseases such as bird flu in agricultural products.
The new approach is, the WTO says, a “tool for resolving differences on specific trade concerns” and one that importantly avoids the expense and complication of a legal challenge under the organization’s formal dispute settlement procedure. The hope is also that tackling problems in this way will lead to speedier resolutions and better outcomes unaffected by committee politics and peer pressure.
The system is meant to bridge what is currently seen as a gap between first raising concerns about a particular issue to the WTO and having the matter escalate to the point of full-scale litigation. As such, it provides an opportunity for the two sides to voluntarily have their disagreement considered by an objective third-party: a mediator, usually the chair of the WTO’s Committee on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS).
Although the WTO already allows members to utilize the SPS Committee as a mediator, the new decision clearly spells out steps that the members concerned and the chair should follow, provided those countries agree to use the system.