Sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) measures are quarantine and biosecurity measures which applied to protect human, animal or plant life or health from risks arising from the introduction, establishment and spread of pests and diseases and from risks arising from additives, toxins and contaminants in food and feed.
These measures are governed by the World Trade Organization’s (WTO)
Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (the SPS agreement), and its Committee of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (the SPS committee).
The SPS agreement
SPS agreement provides a framework of rules to guide WTO members in the development, adoption and enforcement of sanitary (human or animal life or health) and phytosanitary (plant life or health) measures which may affect trade.
All WTO members are required to meet and uphold the principles and obligations of the SPS agreement.
The SPS agreement provides WTO members with the right to use SPS measures to protect human, animal or plant life or health. Each WTO member is entitled to maintain a level of protection it considers appropriate to protect human, animal or plant life or health within its territory. This is called the appropriate level of protection (ALOP).
The right to adopt SPS measures is accompanied by obligations aimed at minimising negative impacts of SPS measures on international trade. The basic obligations are that SPS measures must:
- be applied only to the extent necessary to protect human, animal or plant life or health and not be more trade restrictive than necessary
- be based on scientific principles and not maintained without sufficient scientific evidence, and
- not constitute arbitrary or unjustifiable treatment or a disguised restriction on international trade.
The SPS committee
The SPS committee oversees the implementation of the SPS agreement and provides a forum for discussion on animal and plant health and food safety measures affecting trade. The SPS Committee meets three times a year at the WTO headquarters in Geneva. It provides a forum for all WTO members to discuss the implementation of the SPS agreement, including sharing their experiences, raising concerns about other members’ activities and developing further guidance on implementing the SPS agreement.
The role of the Australian Government Department of Agriculture
The department has responsibilities for setting and administering Australia’s SPS measures, and for looking after Australia’s exports through maintaining and improving technical market access.
The department represents Australia’s interests at SPS committee meetings, along with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT).
The department works closely with its overseas counsellors and DFAT’s diplomatic network, and relies on its relationships with counterpart agencies overseas to resolve SPS issues with other countries.
The department works closely with other Australian Government agencies in meeting its rights and obligations under the SPS agreement, including:
The use of international standard setting bodies
The SPS Agreement encourages WTO members to harmonise their measures by basing SPS measures on agreed international standards. These international standards are developed by organisations referred to as the 'three sisters'. The 'three sisters' develop international standards, recommendations and guidelines for plant and animal health and food safety. They are the:
The department and DFAT work together to coordinate Australia’s input to international SPS policy and influence its development through active participation in the three sisters (IPPC,
Codex). For further information on the department’s involvement in the three sisters, see the departments webpages on the
Where relevant international standards do not exist or a WTO member wishes to maintain a higher level of protection than provided by an international standard, the SPS agreement requires members to base their SPS measures on scientific assessment of the risks. A risk assessment under the SPS agreement must take into account the risk assessment techniques developed by the 'three sisters' (IPPC, OIE and Codex).
Australia's SPS measures are based on science. The department conducts science-based risk assessments, including import risk analyses (IRAs) conducted under a regulated process, and develops recommendations on import conditions that would meet Australia's ALOP. For further information on the department’s procedures and methods for assessing risks see the IRA handbook.
Once import conditions are established,
the department is responsible for ensuring that these import conditions are met.
The SPS agreement contains provisions to ensure transparency in the development and application of SPS measures, including the publication of SPS measures that apply to imported commodities.
WTO members post SPS notifications on the WTO website to inform other members of changes to SPS measures that may have a significant effect on trade. To enhance transparency, WTO members must establish official contact points for communicating about SPS measures. These contact points are known as the National Notification Authority (NNA), which sends out SPS notifications, and the National Enquiry Point (NEP), which responds to enquiries about SPS measures.
In Australia, a single administrative position performs the functions of both the NNA and NEP functions; Australia’s SPS contact point, in the department. For further information, see
Australia’s SPS contact point
Technical assistance to developing countries
The SPS agreement contains provisions for members to provide technical assistance to other countries, particularly developing countries, to implement SPS measures consistent with international standards and the expectations of trading partners.
Australia provides regular updates to the SPS committee on its technical assistance activities, which are available on the
The WTO provides a legally binding dispute settlement system to ensure that members meet their obligations. Other WTO members can challenge SPS measures because the measures do not comply with the importing country's obligations under the SPS agreement.