Introduction

It does  appear that  Covid -19  pandemic is likely to take longer than  anticipated to be fully contained. Amid  this pressure [of the pandemic], different countries are taking various measures   at the multilateral trading system most of which so far have aimed at ensuring they have adequate medical supplies and food needed to feed their citizenry. In their efforts to achieve this , countries have to delicately balance the  need to the goods to move into their territories without restrictions, and the enforcing measures necessary to protect human, animal or plant life or health. It is for that the WTO members concluded the Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures ( SPS Agreement).

Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures(SPS Agreement)

 SPS Agreement entered into force with the establishment of the World Trade Organization on 1 January 1995. It concerns the application of food safety and animal and plant health regulations. It builds on previous GATT rules to restrict the use of unjustified sanitary and phytosanitary measures for the purpose of trade protection. It accordingly  requires that sanitary and phytosanitary measures be applied for no other purpose than that of ensuring food safety and animal and plant health.

 Article 2 of the Agreement  SPS measures are to be  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.

Selected SPS Covid-19 Related  Notifications at the World Trade Organization

Switzerland [on 24. 4.20] relaxed  the labeling requirements: the labelling requirements for food products are relaxed for a time limited period of six months. The derogation will allow food producers to source alternative ingredients or packaging materials to substitute ingredients or materials in short supply without having to amend the packaging information.  However this is condition and For the derogation to apply, three  conditions have to be met (a) the manufacturer has to demonstrate that the supply shortage is a direct consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic; (b) the alternative ingredients used have no bearing on the relevant health information provided on the packaging (e.g. ingredients that are allergen or may cause undesired reactions); and (c), foodstuff produced according to this derogation has to be labelled with a red round sticker followed by an internet address where consumers can obtain information about the ingredients and packaging materials used, and how these may differ from the information contained on the packaging.

Japan [on 23.4.20]  notified that its relevant ministry  would accept scanned or hard copies of export certificates for animals, plants and their products to be exported to Japan in order to facilitate trade in face of COVID-19 outbreak.  The object is regarding  food safety, animal health, plant protection,  protect humans from animal/plant pest or disease,  and to protect territory from other damage from pests.

Indonesia on [22.4.20] notified that Any Importation of Live Animals (Pet animals and Mammals) from importing country that is not free from COVID-19 should be accompanied by Certificate of Declaration free from COVID-19 (SARS-Cov-2) and Certification of Laboratory Analysis that the consignment (live animals) is negative tested COVID 19 (SARS-Cov-2) from accredited laboratory or authorized laboratory in the importing country.

Philippines [22.4.20]  issued a circular on Acceptance of Electronic Export Health Certificate During the Enhanced Community Quarantine Period. The Country had earlier[16.4.20] given  notifications under SPS regarding  acceptance of electronic health certificates. See also this notification .

Russia[20.4.20] lifted  the This letter lifts the provisional restriction on imports to the Russian Federation and transit through its territory of live hydrobionts due to changes in assessment of the epizootic situation with Covid-19 in China. (HS codes: 0306, 0307, 0308). These restrictions had earlier been put in place with regards to  animal products coming from China.

South Africa [on 9. 4.20]  issued a notification namely the Temporary changes to certification requirements for imported fresh produce, cut flowers, plants and other plant based commodities. This notification was described as relevant to the use of original paper phytosanitary certificates (PCs) and it does not apply to countries that already provide original PCs via ePhytos or with the consignments.

South Africa further [on 16.4.20]  introduced  temporary changes to certification requirements for imported live animals and animal products/by-products. Chief among this is the acceptance of the electronic copy of the Veterinary Health Certificates (VHCs) as lodged by the exporting Veterinary Authorities.

And still on this electronic certificates, China Taipei [16.4.20],Equador [15.4.20] and Australian [7.4.20]  also  have also joined  the fray by issuing their respective  notifications with  authorizing electronic clearances.

Costa Rica [on 6.4.20] notified its Circular authorizes officials from the Animal Health Service and the State Phytosanitary Service to review documents using copies of the original documents, which may be either printouts or simple photocopies, in order to avoid unduly slowing down trade flows during the COVID-19 international epidemiological emergency

The European Union [EU] in response to Covid-19 issued a  notification of [of 1. 4.20] namely Temporary flexibility option for control authorities to use inter alia remote communication and electronically submitted documents for checks, in view of the situation linked to COVID-19. By this  the EU is  moving toward reducing the physical paper trail while at the same time ensuring that trade moves uninterrupted.

The e-clearance has also been adopted by Chile [on 1.4.20]  by which its  national plant protection organizations (NPPOs) are receiving scanned copies of phytosanitary certificates to ensure the fluidity of foreign trade. Hence the exporting entities are entities just need to  submit from their respective countries (a scanned image, a photo or any other copy of the original phytosanitary certificate), with only the corresponding phytosanitary certificate number being required.

 Russia [on 3.2.20] Russian Federation imposed  a  Temporary Restriction  of imports of Exotic and decorative animals, including insects, arthropods, amphibians, reptiles and other, live fish and hydrobiontsfrom China. The background is simply that the deadly Coronavirus outbreak began in Wuhan, China. Russia was therefore motivated by the need to protect the  spread of the disease which  is alleged  to  have originated from wild animals. In  the notification Objective and rationale Russia indicated food safety, animal health, plant protection, protect humans from animal/plant pest or disease, protect territory from other damage from pests. See also this corrigenda.

The restriction by Russia is therefore the reasoning for Russia’s move.  The notification is expected courtesy of Article 7 of SPS which is to the effect that: “ Members shall notify changes in their sanitary or phytosanitary measures and shall provide information on their sanitary or phytosanitary measures in accordance with the provisions of Annex B.”

On 26th February 2020 Kazakhstan notified WTO of its intention to impose  temporary restrictions on the importation and transit through the territory of the Republic of Kazakhstan of live fish and fish products from China. Again, this  was based on the  Covid-19  breakout in China.

The notification describes the notification as meant “to protect public health from diseases, as well as ensuring veterinary and sanitary safety, since 29 January, 2020 temporary restrictions have been introduced on the importation and transit through the territory of the Republic of Kazakhstan of live fish and fish products from China.”

 The rationale for the restriction in this case is the same as the Russian case, that is  protection of  human, animal or plant life or health as envisaged in Article 5 of the SPS Agreement.

Indonesia’s notification [20.3.20]  is to the effect  that  any importation and/or movement of mammals and pets from Hong Kong, China must be accompanied with Laboratory test result for COVID-19. Again, the reasoning , backed by the SPS Agreement was to address  the ongoing outbreak of COVID-19 and anticipating for carriers that can carry coronavirus.

Mauritius [on 23.2.20]  imposed a temporary restriction on imports of live animals, including fish  from the People’s Republic of China, Italy, Iran ,South Korea, Switzerland, Reunion Island and European Union Countries.

 African Countries Not reporting as much  under SPS Agreement.

 What stands out from the above is the position of African countries. A look at the notifications reveal that there is considerably less notifications by African countries under the SPS Agreement. Indeed,   so far only South Africa and Mauritius have made  SPS related notification.  Yet some African countries like Kenya   are currently importing fish from China. This points to the  usual trend of African countries not taking advantage of the multilateral trading system.