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What is the SPS agreement?

What is the Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) agreement of the World Trade Organization (WTO) [1]

This document seeks to explain why knowledge of the Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (commonly referred to as ‘the SPS Agreement’) of the World Trade Organization (WTO) is important for all who are interested in international trade in agricultural commodities.

It outlines the basic concepts of the SPS Agreement. All countries that are members of the WTO (this includes Solomon Islands) are bound by this Agreement.

Only a short introduction to the SPS Agreement is given here. To get a comprehensive review of the SPS Agreement you will need to go to other sources of information. Links to some of these are provided in the text and listed at the end of this document.

The overall goal of the SPS Agreement is free and healthy trade, realising the benefits that this brings for all WTO members, developed and developing, under the WTO’s agenda for promoting global free trade. The SPS Agreement recognises WTO members’ rights to protect human, animal or plant life or health, provided that certain requirements are met. The key requirements are that SPS measures (e.g. import requirements and treatments) must be science-based; they must not be more trade-restrictive than required; they must not arbitrarily or unjustifiably discriminate; and they must not be a disguised restriction on international trade.

As part of the WTO rules-based global trading system, the SPS Agreement works to ensure that agricultural trade flows as smoothly, predictably and freely as possible. In particular, the SPS Agreement provides countries with a mechanism and standards for assessing if SPS measures unjustifiably restrict trade.

Health and international trade

The SPS Agreement is essentially about health (human, animal and plant) and international trade.

International trade and travel have expanded significantly in the past 50 years. This has increased the movement of products that may pose health risks. The SPS Agreement recognises the need for WTO members to protect themselves from the risks posed by the entry of pests and diseases, but also seeks to minimise any negative effects of SPS measures on trade.

The health aspect of the SPS Agreement basically means that WTO members can protect human, animal or plant life or health by applying measures to manage the risks associated with imports. These ‘SPS measures’ can be either sanitary (relating to human or animal life or health) or phytosanitary (relating to plant life or health) and take the form of quarantine or food safety import requirements and treatments.

The international trade aspect of the SPS Agreement basically means that, in seeking to protect health, WTO members must use SPS measures that are science-based and are not arbitrary, unnecessary, or a disguised restriction on international trade.

This document focuses on trade in agricultural commodities, and in particular on animal and plant health issues; it only touches on human health issues.

Risks and commodities

The overall goal of the SPS Agreement is free and healthy trade. To achieve this the Agreement applies to any measures (quarantine requirements and treatments)  imposed by a WTO member to protect itself from risks to human, animal or plant life or health that might affect international trade.

The risks to animal life or health come from:

  • the entry, establishment or spread of pests (including weeds), diseases, disease- carrying organisms or disease-causing organisms; or
  • additives, contaminants (including pesticide and veterinary drug residues and extraneous matter), toxins or disease-causing organisms in feedstuffs.

The risks to plant life or health may come from:

  • the entry, establishment or spread of pests (including weeds), diseases, disease- carrying organisms or disease-causing organisms.

The main risk pathways are imports of food, plants (including plant products), animals (including animal products) and other pathways such as used machinery that can carry soil.

What does the SPS agreement say?

The SPS Agreement has 14 Articles. The basic rights and obligations of WTO members (including Solomon Islands) are given in the box below.


SPS Agreement, Article 2 — Basic rights and obligations

  1. Members have the right to take sanitary and phytosanitary measures necessary for the protection of human, animal or plant life or health, provided that such measures are not inconsistent with the provisions of this Agreement.
  2. Members shall ensure that any sanitary or phytosanitary measure is applied only to the extent necessary to protect human, animal or plant life or health, is based on scientific principles and is not maintained without sufficient scientific evidence, except as provided for in paragraph 7 of Article 5.
  3. Members shall ensure that their sanitary and phytosanitary measures do not arbitrarily or unjustifiably discriminate between Members where identical or similar conditions prevail, including between their own territory and that of other Members. Sanitary and phytosanitary measures shall not be applied in a manner which would constitute a disguised restriction on international trade.
  4. Sanitary or phytosanitary measures which conform to the relevant provisions of this Agreement shall be presumed to be in accordance with the obligations of the Members under the provisions of GATT 1994 which relate to the use of sanitary or phytosanitary measures, in particular the provisions of Article XX(b).


The full SPS Agreement is available here on the WTO website. Information about the Agreement and SPS developments and activities around the world can be found here at the WTO SPS measures ‘gateway’.

This document focusses on some of the key principles in the SPS Agreement, namely: harmonisation, equivalence, appropriate level of protection, risk assessment, regional conditions and transparency.


Harmonisation [2]

WTO members are entitled to determine their own SPS measures provided they are in accordance with the terms of the SPS Agreement. However, under the principle of harmonisation WTO members are encouraged to base their SPS measures on international standards, guidelines and recommendations, where they exist. The SPS Committee promotes and monitors international harmonisation. There are three international standard-setting bodies specifically mentioned in the SPS Agreement. These are often referred to as the ‘Three Sisters’ (see Annex 1):

  • the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC) dealing with plant health;
  • the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) dealing with animal health; and
  • the Codex Alimentarius Commission (Codex) dealing with food safety.

WTO Members are encouraged to participate actively in the Three Sisters, which have their own forums for delivering technical assistance.

Equivalence [3]

The SPS Agreement requires importing WTO member countries to accept the SPS measures of exporting WTO members as equivalent if the exporting country clearly demonstrates to the importing country that its measures achieve the importing country’s appropriate level of protection (ALOP) (see below). Typically, recognition of equivalence is achieved through bilateral consultations and the sharing of technical information.

Appropriate level of protection [4] (ALOP)

According to the SPS Agreement the appropriate level of protection is the level of protection deemed appropriate by the WTO member country to protect human, animal or plant life or health within its territory.

It is important to clearly distinguish between the ALOP established by a WTO member and the SPS measures. The ALOP is a broad objective. The SPS measures are established to attain that objective. The determination of the ALOP logically precedes the establishment of an SPS measure.

Each WTO member has the right to determine its own ALOP. However, in determining their ALOP, WTO members should take into account the objective of minimising negative trade effects. In addition, WTO members are required to apply the concept of ALOP consistently; i.e. they must ‘avoid arbitrary or unjustifiable distinctions’ that ‘result in discrimination or a disguised restriction on international trade’.

Risk assessment [5]

The SPS Agreement requires WTO members to base their SPS measures on a risk assessment, as appropriate to the circumstances. In conducting such risk assessments WTO members are required to take into account risk assessment techniques developed by relevant international organisations.

The reason WTO members conduct a risk assessment[6] is to determine the SPS measures to apply to an import in order to achieve their ALOP. However, the SPS measures which a WTO member adopts must not be more trade-restrictive than required to achieve their ALOP, taking into account technical and economic feasibility.

In practical terms, a risk assessment is essentially the process of gathering scientific evidence and relevant economic factors on the risks involved in allowing a particular import to enter a country. An importing member is likely to seek information on matters such as the pests or diseases in the exporting country that might be associated with the commodity for which permission to import has been sought. The types of questions that might be asked include:

  • Does the pest or disease occur in your country?
  • Have the pests or diseases been controlled?
  • Are they restricted to particular parts of the country?
  • How effective are the procedures applied to ensure that products for export are free from pests, diseases and other contaminants?

WTO members may adopt provisional SPS measures where there is insufficient scientific evidence to complete a risk assessment. However, in such circumstances WTO Members are required to seek to obtain the additional information necessary for a more objective risk assessment within a reasonable period of time.

The Three Sisters have developed various risk assessment techniques:

  • IPPC has issued three standards specifically dealing with risk analysis:
    • ISPM 2. Guidelines for pest risk analysis (PRA)
    • ISPM 11. PRA for quarantine pests including analysis of environmental risks
    • ISPM 21. PRA for regulated non-quarantine pests.
  • The OIE deals with risk analysis in its Handbook on import risk analysis for animals and animal products and terrestrial and aquatic animal health codes.
  • Codex had published Principles and guidelines for the conduct of microbiological risk assessment and Principles for the risk analysis of foods derived from modern biotechnology.

Further information about the three sisters can be found on their websites, see Annex 1.

Regional conditions [7]

The SPS characteristics of a geographic region — be it all of a country, part of a country, or all or parts of several countries — are referred to in the SPS Agreement as regional conditions. They can affect the risk posed to human, animal or plant life or health. The SPS Agreement requires WTO members to adapt their SPS measures to the conditions of the regions the product is coming from and is going to. In particular, WTO members are required to recognise the concepts of pest/disease-free areas and areas of low pest/disease prevalence. Exporting WTO members claiming pest/disease-free areas or areas of low pest/disease prevalence must demonstrate to the importing WTO member that such areas are, and are likely to remain, pest/disease-free areas or areas of low pest/disease prevalence.

The OIE and IPPC have developed standards for pest free areas (PFAs). The IPPC’s published standards provide a great deal of guidance for establishing PFAs for plant pests.

  • ISPM 2 and ISPM 4 provide guidance on specific surveys to detect a pest or to map the limits of its occurrence.
  • ISPM 6 provides guidelines for surveillance work.
  • ISPM 8 details procedures for determining pest status in an area based on pest records.

Transparency [8]

The principle of transparency in the SPS Agreement requires WTO members to provide information on their SPS measures and to notify changes in their SPS measures. WTO members are also required to publish their SPS regulations. The notification requirements are met through a national notification authority. Each WTO member must also nominate a national enquiry point to deal with SPS related queries from other WTO members. A single agency may perform both notification and enquiry functions. In Solomon Islands this is Biosecurity Solomon Islands within the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock.

A handbook, “How to apply the transparency provisions of the SPS Agreement”, can be downloaded at the WTO SPS measures gateway here.

Who administers the SPS Agreement?

The SPS Agreement is administered by the Committee on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (the ‘SPS Committee’), in which all WTO members can participate. The SPS Committee is a forum for consultations where WTO members regularly come together to discuss SPS measures and their effects on trade, to oversee implementation of the SPS Agreement, and to seek to avoid potential disputes.

WTO members benefit from active participation in the SPS Committee. The SPS Committee has various activities to help members implement the SPS Agreement.

More information about the SPS Committee is available here.

Resources needed to implement the SPS Agreement

Responsibility for implementing the SPS Agreement usually lies with the government departments and national organisations that have the expertise and information relevant to plant and animal health, as well as food safety matters. In Solomon Islands for plant and animal health these are Biosecurity Solomon Islands and the Research Division of the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock and for human health the Ministry for Health.

A domestic regulatory framework covering the work, responsibilities and powers of these bodies is needed, together with systems to enforce compliance. This encourages confidence in assessments and confidence in certificates issued in connection with SPS measures.

Establishing animal or plant health status, and developing appropriate SPS measures, involves the collection of a lot of varied information from many different sources. This information is of continuing value, and it is important that it is organised, categorised and stored so that it is readily retrievable for example:

  1. To identify risks and to research, develop and implement science-based SPS measures, WTO members need access to personnel trained in appropriate areas of expertise.
  2. Access to expertise in the detection and diagnosis of animal and plant pests and diseases is needed to support trade in agricultural commodities, including skills in entomology, plant pathology, veterinary pathology, epidemiology, and taxonomy. Quarantine and inspection officers trained in sampling and detection techniques are needed at import entry and export exit points.
  3. Collections of specimens, reference material on insects and plants, and laboratories equipped with diagnostic facilities, are of great importance.

Who benefits?

Exporters and importers of agricultural commodities in all WTO member countries benefit from the rules established by the SPS Agreement and consumers benefit from the availability of safe and competitively priced food and agricultural commodities.

Developing countries benefit from the technical assistance available to improve their quarantine and food safety systems, including enhanced capacity in diagnostics, analysis, inspection, certification, information management and reporting. This improved SPS capacity will help to open international markets to exports from these developing countries. In addition, it supports the management of agricultural industries, to the general benefit of domestic producers and domestic consumers.

Technical assistance and special treatment

The WTO recognises that the technical capacity to implement the SPS Agreement will vary between WTO members. Developing country members, in particular, may find implementation challenging due to resource constraints, including limited expertise.

To help overcome this problem, a number of mechanisms are built into the SPS Agreement.

WTO members agree to facilitate the provision of technical assistance to other members, especially developing countries, either bilaterally or through international organisations such as the Three Sisters. The form of this technical assistance and how it can be provided is broadly defined.[9]

The SPS Agreement also provides for special and differential treatment.[10] For example, in applying SPS measures WTO members are required to take account of the special needs of developing country members, particularly the least-developed country members.

Many developing country WTO members have benefited by basing their SPS measures on existing international standards, guidelines and recommendations issued by the Three Sisters.


Annex 1

The Three Sisters — setting international standards for SPS measures

International Plant Protection Convention

The International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC) is a legally binding treaty on plant health administered by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) but implemented through the cooperation of member governments and Regional Plant Protection Organizations.

The goal of the IPPC is to coordinate work to prevent the spread and introduction of pests of plants and plant products, and to promote appropriate measures for their control, with minimal disruption to trade.

The IPPC develops International Standards for Phytosanitary Measures (ISPMs). Over 25 ISPMS have been published to date including: ISPM 1 which outlines the principles for the protection of plants and the application of phytosanitary measures in international trade; and ISPM 5 which is a glossary of phytosanitary terms. A full list of ISPMs and contact details for the IPPC Secretariat in Rome are located on the International Phytosanitary Portal, which is a forum for reporting and exchanging of information by governments.

World Organisation for Animal Health

The World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), was formed by an international agreement in 1924 with 28 member countries. The organisation has now grown to 167 member countries.

Its objectives include ensuring transparency in the global animal disease and zoonosis situation, publishing health standards for trade in animals and animal products, promoting veterinary skills, improving the safety of food of animal origin and promoting animal welfare through a science-based approach.

OIE’s standards, guidelines and recommendations are contained in the Terrestrial Animal Health Code, the Manual of Diagnostic Tests and Vaccines for Terrestrial Animals, the Aquatic Animal Health Code and the Manual of Diagnostic Tests for Aquatic Animals. Information and contact details for the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) can be found here.

Codex Alimentarius Commission

The Codex Alimentarius Commission (the ‘food code’) is a body of the Joint Food Standards Programme of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO).

Codex develops and encourages implementation of standards, codes of practice, guidelines and recommendations covering all aspects of food safety, including handling and distribution. In setting international standards for food, Codex has a dual mandate to protect the health of consumers and to ensure fair practices in the food trade.

Codex has developed a wide range of specific texts covering various aspects of food safety and quality; this plus contact details can be found on the Codex website.




1. I am an exporter of agricultural produce. How can I be sure the SPS measures I apply to my products will meet importing country requirements?

It is important to check with the relevant authorities of the importing country. They are in the best position to provide the information about their quarantine requirements for agricultural imports. Meeting the relevant international standards of the Three Sisters is often a good starting point.

2. We export used vehicles not agricultural commodities. Why do we need to know about the SPS Agreement and SPS measures?

While your exports themselves may not represent a risk, they may be contaminated with soil or plant residues, or may be shipped using packaging materials such as timber pallets or plant straw. SPS measures are therefore relevant to all exporters and importers.

3. Implementing the SPS Agreement in our country is going to cost us a lot and our resources are scarce. Will it be worthwhile?

The recent World Bank Report No. 31207 found that the costs of complying with international food standards may be less than expected and that the benefits may be underestimated because they are harder to measure than the costs. The report also notes that those developing countries that have adopted international standards have maintained or improved their access to markets for agricultural commodities, and are in a good position to continue to do so. Countries sometimes underestimate the resources they have available to implement the SPS Agreement. For example, they might have many of the people with the expertise required but need to bring them together in the one agency.

4. Our government doesn’t have the resources to gather the information for risk assessments and run continual surveillance programs. Why do we have to worry about these processes, when it is cheaper for us to fumigate our crops or our exports?

In the longer term this approach may become uneconomical and, if chemical residues are an issue, may undermine trade. You may still have to provide importers with certification of the effectiveness of your practices. This involves providing information on the pests and diseases that may be present — pest and disease lists. Having the capacity to provide this information will help build knowledge of your agricultural industries’ health status, which can lead to less dependence on fumigation and similar measures, and more economical management of pest and disease risks.

5. Can members get help in training the staff they need to be able to fulfil their SPS Agreement obligations?

As part of the SPS Agreement, WTO members are encouraged to provide technical assistance to developing country WTO members. For example, the Australian Government, through the Department of Agriculture is running a Biosecurity Development Program in Solomon Islands and an SPS Capacity Building Program focusing on ASEAN countries.

6. Where I can find out more?

The full text of the SPS Agreement is here.

A publication in WTO Agreement Series covers SPS measures. It explains the Agreement, including differences between SPS measures and TBT, and answers some frequently asked questions. Download the PDF document here.

WTO SPS measures ‘gateway’ opens a mine of information about the Agreement and SPS developments and activities around the world. View website.

Information about SPS Committee functions and activities can be found at here.

‘Food safety and agricultural health standards: challenges and opportunities for developing country exports’, World Bank Report No. 31207, available via this web page - search for ‘food safety’.

[1] This document is based substantially on “The WTO Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) Agreement - WHY YOU NEED TO KNOW” published by the Australian Government ISBN 0 9751686 4 9. 20pp.

[2] SPS Agreement Article 3

[3] SPS Agreement Article 4

[4] SPS Agreement Article 5

[5] SPS Agreement Article 5

[6] Risk assessment is defined in the SPS Agreement as: the evaluation of the likelihood of entry, establishment or spread of a pest or disease within the territory of an importing WTO member according to the SPS measures which might be applied, and of the associated potential biological and economic consequences.

[7] SPS Agreement Article 6

[8] SPS Agreement Article 7

[9] SPS Agreement Article 9

[10] SPS Agreement Article 10

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