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This article was published in 1998
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The SPS Agreement and Australian Quarantine Policy

R.T. Roe, Senior Principal Veterinary Officer, Animal Quarantine Policy Branch

Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service


The disciplines involved in international trade arising from the formation of the World Trade Organisation and completion of its Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS Agreement) and the Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT Agreement) demand transparency, consistency and documentation of risks so that limitations to trade are based on scientific disease control measures.

The SPS Agreement defines the basic rights and obligations of member countries of the WTO to take sanitary (or quarantine) measures. SPS measures may, directly or indirectly, affect international trade and should not be used as a disguised restriction on trade. Member countries have the right to take SPS measures to the extent necessary to protect human, animal, or plant life or health provided these measures are based on scientific principles and are not maintained without sufficient scientific evidence. Each country can determine its own appropriate level of protection, which can be higher than the relevant international standards if there is scientific justification. An objective of the SPS measures is to achieve consistency in the application of a member country's appropriate level of protection.

Exporting countries, including Australia, expect access to markets unless there are well documented reasons for access to be denied. Risk analysis is the basis for fairness in quarantine measures in international trade as other trade distorting measures such as subsidies and tariffs are progressively removed.

World trade environment

The completion of the Uruguay Round of Multilateral Trade Negotiations and with it the formation of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in January 1995, has paved the way towards clearing obstacles to international trade. Many social benefits result from this including access of developing countries to world markets and availability of commodities at the cheapest possible price for consumers. As a net exporter of agricultural produce Australia stands to gain through the removal of non-technical international trade barriers such as tariffs and quotas on agricultural goods. Australia exports over five times the value of agricultural goods that it imports.

The Sanitary and Phytosanitary Agreement

The SPS Agreement(1) which accompanied the formation of the WTO invokes certain disciplines in the application of international quarantine measures. The principles embodied in the SPS Agreement include:

• Harmonisation - Basing quarantine measures on international standards. For imports of animals and animal products these will generally be the OIE Animal Health Code.

• Scientific basis - Where international standards are not used there is an obligation for quarantine measures to be scientifically based and least trade restrictive having regard to achievement of quarantine objectives.

• Consistency - Quarantine measures should not discriminate between countries where identical or similar conditions prevail.

• Equivalence - Alternative health/sanitary measures which can be shown to achieve the same level of quarantine security as the importing country's measures should be accepted.

• National treatment - Quarantine restrictions placed on imports should be no more stringent than measures that are applied to domestic products in relation to the achievement of the same or similar sanitary objectives.

• Transparency - The decision making process should be open and the basis for the quarantine policy decision documented.

• Regionalisation - Animals and animal products which meet importation requirements should be accepted from internationally recognised disease-free zones within infected countries, provided the effectiveness of regionalisation can be demonstrated.

• Risk assessment - Quarantine requirements should be based on an evaluation of the risk of disease introduction and risk management measures that could be applied rather than prohibiting access based on the presence of disease in the exporting country.

WTO Dispute Settlement Panels will consider disputes concerning quarantine issues in the light of the disciplines imposed by the SPS Agreement. Panels of experts in world trade law will be advised by technical experts agreed by the disputing countries, with reference to relevant international standards.

AQIS risk analysis process

The risk analysis process followed by AQIS is and has been in conformity with these SPS principles. Because of the favourable health status of Australian livestock industries, quarantine measures exceeding the international standards are applied for some diseases. Further, Australia applies quarantine requirements in relation to some diseases for which no international standards have been developed because they are not recognised by other countries as being of significance in international trade, is they are not OIE listed diseases. This is not inconsistent with our obligations as a WTO member, provided it can be shown that Australia is free of the disease of concern (or, if present, the disease is subject to an official control program) and that trade could result in introduction of the disease in question.

In undertaking an import risk analysis (IRA) AQIS consults with relevant industry bodies, State agriculture authorities and scientific organisations. This is to expose the proposed measures and their scientific basis to the widest possible peer review and scientific scrutiny. This generally involves preparation of a discussion paper canvassing what are considered to be the main quarantine issues and the release of this for a 60 day period of consultation. Comments received through this consultative phase are then analysed and a position paper prepared proposing quarantine conditions to be applied to the imported animals or animal products from the particular country. These proposed quarantine conditions are then circulated for a further 30-60 days consultation.

Following the review(2) in 1996 of quarantine in Australia by the committee chaired by Professor Nairn, a formal procedure has been implemented for IRAs (Figure 1). The revised IRA procedure takes into account Australia's international rights and obligations under the SPS Agreement. A major feature of the revised IRA procedure is the formalisation of consultation and communication with stakeholders. The mechanism for stakeholders to appeal the decision making process is also set out in the revised IRA procedure.

Chicken meat and pig meat risk assessments

The steps involved in the development of importation requirements for cooked chicken meat and pig meat are illustrative of the thoroughness with which AQIS considers the technical issues relating to quarantine risk in the development of import requirements conditions.

Chicken meat

The requests from the USA, Thailand and Denmark for access to the Australian market for their chicken meat date back to the late 1980's. In March 1990 AQIS issued a circular memorandum advising of its intention to carry out a full risk assessment of the importation of chicken meat and invited comment. Following correspondence with the veterinary authorities of the USA, Thailand, Denmark and New Zealand and the collection of a considerable amount of data AQIS carried out an assessment leading to the release of a risk assessment discussion paper(3) on the importation of uncooked and cooked chicken meat from the four countries. At the same time the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics (ABARE) was asked to conduct a study of the economic consequences of the introduction of Newcastle disease as a result of the importation of chicken meat. The discussion paper stimulated a large volume of responses expressing concern over the importation of chicken meat. Many of these concerns were related to the economic impact of importations but some disease concerns were also raised.

As a result of these disease concerns AQIS sought more information from the countries seeking access. There was also a considerable volume of correspondence with poultry industry groups, other government agencies, such as the national Food Authority, and with community groups. It was decided at this stage to proceed with the development of importation requirements for cooked chicken meat and to defer further consideration of uncooked product until the issues relating to the quarantine risks from cooked product were resolved.

In June 1994 a position paper(4) on the importation of cooked chicken meat proposing certification requirements was circulated. At the same time a report in the Economic Impact of Newcastle Disease on the Australian Poultry Industry's(5) was released by ABARE. In the light of a large number of representations received by the government, two working groups were established, one to advise on the economic effects of permitting imports and the other to provide an opportunity to industry for further technical consultation on the draft quarantine requirements. These working groups met on a number of occasions although agreement was not able to be reached on all of the technical issues.

In August 1996 the Senate referred the administration and management by AQIS of the importation of cooked chicken meat to the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee for inquiry and report. This Senate committee received submissions and held public hearings at a number of locations. It reported at a the end of October 1996. Following the report(6) of the Senate committee the Minister directed that a final round of confirmatory testing be conducted to demonstrate the efficacy of the cooking parameters proposed by AQIS.

The Bureau of Resource Sciences (BRS) in early February 1997 commissioned the Central Veterinary Laboratory, Weybridge in the UK to carry out trials on the tissue tropism and heat inactivation of Newcastle disease and infectious bursal disease viruses. Reports on the Newcastle disease virus (NDV) dissemination and inactivation trials were received in July 1997 but it was not until October 1997 that the final reports on the infectious bursal disease virus (IBDV) dissemination and heat inactivation trials were received. These trials demonstrated that, while NDV was inactivated well within the cooking parameters proposed in the import requirements, IBDV was found to be more heat resistant than in previous studies undertaken by Dr Dennis Alexander on which the cooking parameters in the import requirements were based. As a result AQIS modified the cooking times in the import requirements in line with this new experimental data. The results of the Weybridge trials were referred to a Scientific working group, chaired by the Commonwealth Chief Veterinary Officer and with poultry industry representation, for review and advice on why the results differ from previous IBDV heat inactivation trials.

Pig meat

The importation of uncooked pig meat from Canada has been permitted since July 1990. The original importation requirements specified conditions to exclude the introduction of transmissible gastroenteritis and trichinosis. Since December 1992 all Canadian pig meat imports have had to be processed prior to release from quarantine control to address the possible risk from porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome.

In April 1996 Canada requested access for pig meat products cooked in Canada. From a technical perspective the Canadian access request represents an equivalent quarantine risk to that of imported Canadian pig meat which is cooked post-arrival. Following consideration of the issues and consultation with the Australia New Zealand Food Authority (ANZFA) regarding the public health issues a circular was issued by AQIS proposing certification requirements for the importation of pig meat cooked in Canada under equivalent time/temperature conditions to those currently applying to imported pig meat cooked post-arrival.

Following consideration of the issues raised in comments on the proposed certification requirements and further consultation with ANZFA conditions for the importation of cooked Canadian pig meat were finalised in November 1997. Subsequent to the announcement of these importation requirements the Pork Council of Australia (PCA) and the Pig Research and Development Corporation (PRDC) raised concerns over the quarantine risk from a recently described disease syndrome in Canada, post-weaning multisystemic wasting syndrome (PMWS). Following a meeting with the PCA and PRDC a technical working group was established to review the available information on PMWS and provide advice to AQIS regarding the quarantine risk. Two of the five members of the working group were nominees of industry and one was the nominee of the Veterinary Committee of the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Resource Management. The working group concluded that there is a negligible risk of PMWS establishing in Australia as a result of the importation of pig meat under current conditions for importation.


The two examples discussed above demonstrate the extent of consultation and the opportunity for industry to contribute to the development of quarantine conditions for the importation of animals and animal products into Australia. Quarantine requirements are developed in an open and transparent manner. The circulation of discussion and position papers exposes the risk assessment process and the technical basis for proposed import requirements to scientific scrutiny and peer review prior to finalisation.

The fact that some proposals put forward by industry, such as certification of area freedom from Newcastle disease in the case of cooked chicken meat, were not adopted does not mean such measures were not considered. Australia is recognised around the world as having a very favourable animal and plant health status, and AQIS' role in protecting this status by administering a highly conservative quarantine regime is widely acknowledged. We will continue to pursue a conservative approach to quarantine to protect the favourable animal health status of the Australian livestock industries and native fauna. However, our quarantine requirements must be based on science and, where alternative measures are available which will provide equivalent quarantine security, the least trade restrictive measure should be adopted. To do otherwise would make Australia vulnerable to challenge within the World Trade Organisation.


  1. Agreement on the application of sanitary and phytosanitary measures. World Trade Organisation, Geneva
  2. Australian quarantine - a shared responsibility. Department of Primary Industries and Energy, Canberra 1996
  3. AQIS discussion paper on the importation of fresh frozen and cooked chicken meat and products from USA. Denmark Thailand and New Zealand. Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service, Canberra, 1992
  4. AQIS position paper: Importation of cooked chicken meat from the USA, Thailand and Denmark. Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service, Canberra, May 1994
  5. Economic impact of Newcastle disease on the Australian poultry industry. Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics, Canberra, May I994
  6. Report on the importation of cooked chicken meat into Australia. Report by the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee, Department of the Senate, Parliament House, Canberra, October 1996


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