What is SPS and what is it all about?

An SPS measure is a Sanitary and Phytosanitary measure implemented by Government to protect food safety, animal health and plant health. SPS measures are regulatory acts and concern laws and their enforcement. They can be applied at different points in the supply chain (raw material inputs, production, processing, distribution, including import and export, and marketing.

Why is the World Trade Organisation involve?

Some countries have used SPS measures to protect their own industries from competition from trading partners. This is known as a non-tariff barrier and is considered to be an unfair distortion of trade. The SPS Agreement was established under the Uruguay round of international trade talks. All members of the WTO adopt this international agreement, which binds them to applying SPS measures in a non-discriminatory way, and requires them to be (as far as possible) based on a scientific assessment of the risks to human health, animal health and plant health. Countries which join the WTO, like Pakistan, are required to revise their SPS control system to ensure that it complies with these requirements. Adoption of the principles, codes and standards set out by the international technical standards organisations regarding food safety (Codex Alimentarious Commission), animal health (international animal health organisation) and plant health (international plant protection council) ensures that these obligations will be met.

What is the situation in Pakistan?

In Pakistan, there is a system failure of the SPS control system. Despite having a lot of regulations, a number of inspection services at federal and provincial level, many different testing laboratories and a range of certification systems, there are almost no effective controls in place to prevent dangerous products from reaching the market, thus presenting risks to human health, animal welfare and the economic interests of farmers. SPS failures are demonstrated by the lack of access for Pakistan to to the EU market for fishery products, and the high level of rejections of consignments of plant products in international markets due to lack of compliance (for example aflatoxins).

What is the job of Government in all of this?

Government has several jobs in relation to SPS. On the one hand it must pass laws and regulations and apply them to business operators in agriculture and food sectors, to ensure that human, plant and animal health are protected. People who break the rules are subject to the court process and sanctions are applied. On the other hand Government may choose to take on the responsibility to provide support and help to its producers and industry. This could be in the form of promulgation of codes of practice (good agricultural practices), advice (extension services), grants for investment in improved equipment, or direct investment in common infrastructure.

Why has the SPS control system failed in Pakistan?

In Pakistan’s SPS institutions, there is a widespread lack of understanding and awareness of modern SPS management systems, which hampers development of the control system. Controls remain organized on the basis of commodity groups (such as plants, livestock, fish) reflecting functions of Government departments, rather than being arrangement in terms of the functions and risks to be controlled (that is animal health, plant health and food safety). At present most people consider “control“ to be a question of sampling and testing a product before it passes to the market. However, controls must be applied throughout the supply chain in an integrated system (the “farm to fork” principle). For example if a test reveals a plant disease agent in an export consignment, the appropriate control response is to identify the source, determine the extent of the disease, apply controls to limit the spread and eliminate the source of disease. At present, there are no systems in place to apply this approach to any SPS hazards identified.

As a result Federal Departments of Animal Quarantine (under MoLDD) and Plant Protection (under MinFA) work exclusively with import/export controls, with no focused effort to integrate activities with controls applied at the domestic level in Pakistan. There is no focus of responsibility at federal level for food safety. Where food safety functions are required at federal level (for example in relation to exports) these are undertaken by various bodies e.g. fish inspection by Marine Fisheries Department and meat inspection activities by Animal Quarantine Department. The Pakistan Standards and Quality Control Authority (PSQCA) under the Ministry of Science and Technology also undertake mandatory food safety controls (sampling and testing of some commodities against PSQCA standards).

On the other hand, Provincial authorities responsible for SPS functions do not receive clear guidance and information from the Federal Government. They develop technical regulations which differ between Provinces, and apply them differently, which if applied to products traded internationally risks breaching Pakistan’s WTO obligations. In some cases, there is only limited capacity to ensure SPS controls at places of production (such as fishing vessels & landing sites, farms). The result is that controls remain poorly applied, if at all, at the level of the producer (which is from where they mostly originate).

Why does it matter if we have weak SPS controls by Government?

If agro-food businesses are left to their own devices, with no controls, products reach market which may harm human, plant and animal health. This can happen by accident (through the ignorance of the business operators) or intentionally (by unscrupulous operators seeking to maximise revenues). The sale of products which are not safe damages the interest of all producers, and undermines consumer confidence, and reduces prices obtained by producers. It also undermines the incentive for investment in improved safety of products, since good operators (who sustain higher costs due to their investment) are undercut by low cost producers of unsafe products. A strong regulation, which identifies non-compliant operators and prevents their products reaching the market helps to keep the sector competetive. This is particularly important in relation to international trade.

What is being done to address this?

To address the need for integration of SPS controls, the Government of Pakistan, through the Ministry of Food and Agriculture, has supported the implementation of a “Special programme for the strengthening of SPS facilities and quality inspection services in compliance with WTO – Establishment of National Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services – NAPHIS”. In 2009, the NAPHIS programme was revised and extended until 2011. NAPHIS has its own premises and professional staff complement. NAPHIS has a mandate to consider the approach to strengthening the SPS management system. The Ministry of Food and Agriculture, as well as Provincial departments of agriculture have established WTO Wings, to consider the mechanisms for the implementation of stronger more effective controls. Provincial governments are proceeding rapidly to new develop food safety controls. For example, in Punjab alone, the Fisheries Department is developing new legislation for inspection and control of fishery products, the Livestock Department is developing a meat and dairy inspection agency, and the Department of Health has proposed revision of the Pure Food Rules and the formation of Punjab Food Safety Agency. Although there is a lot of activity, this is not well coordinated within a national framework. There is at present no coordination or strategic direction from Federal Government. NAPHIS has a clear opportunity to lead and coordinate important developments in the SPS area.

Is anybody helping Pakistan with these tasks?

The TRTAII project is an EU funded intervention implemented by UNIDO. The PACE Component of this project aims to achieve the result “Improved compliance of exported products” in terms of both customer requirements and SPS measures applied by export markets. The approach being adopted is to i) work with Competent Authorities to strengthen SPS management systems in Pakistan; ii) work with enterprise and support organisations to improve export quality, value addition and compliance with market requirements; iii) work with service providers (including standards, accreditation institutions and laboratories) to improve conformity assessment infrastructure and services.

The first of these components will therefore work with NAPHIS on the strategy for the strengthening of the SPS management system. In the short term this will include the development of an SPS policy. This will map out the approach, particularly in relation to the development of the institutions and bodies which will direct and implement controls in food safety, animal health and plant health. This activity will be followed by the promulgation of new primary legislation in each of these areas.