Significant implications for food safety and quality arise from the Final Act of the Uruguay Round, especially from the Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) Measures and the Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT Agreement).
The purpose of the SPS Agreement is to ensure that measures established by governments to protect human, animal and plant life and health, in the agricultural sector, including fisheries, are consistent with obligations prohibiting arbitrary or unjustifiable discrimination on trade between countries where the same conditions prevail and are not disguised restrictions on international trade. The SPS Agreement is particularly relevant to food safety, providing a framework for the formulation and harmonization of SPS measures. These measures shall be based on science and implemented in an equivalent and transparent manner.
The purpose of the TBT Agreement is to prevent the use of national or regional technical requirements, or standards in general, as unjustified technical barriers to trade. The agreement covers all types of standards, including quality requirements for foods (except requirements related to SPS measures), and it includes numerous measures designed to protect the consumer against deception and economic fraud.
To facilitate quality and safe food production for domestic and international markets, the SPS and TBT Agreements encourage governments to harmonize their national measures or base them on international standards, guidelines and recommendations developed by international standard-setting bodies, such as those of the Codex Alimentarius for food safety and quality. These measures shall be based on sound scientific analysis and evidence, involving a thorough review of all relevant information and the use of risk analysis principles.
FAO has embarked on a comprehensive programme of building capacity mainly through training to assist developing member countries to meet their commitments under the SPS and TBT agreements. Likewise, FAO is involved in the work of the Codex Alimentarius to ensure that its standards and deliberations are scientifically based and do not represent disguised barriers to trade.
However, the Codex standards are meant to be voluntary and adopted by consensus. But under the new SPS/TBT agreements, the Codex standards can not be called voluntary, nor are they fully mandatory, falling in an area in between which looks like voluntarism under duress. This is changing the Codex deliberations into a highly charged political exercise, because countries know that the standards they are debating might subsequently be the subject of WTO dispute settlement, and act therefore accordingly. The level and impact of contributions to the Codex deliberations by many developing countries is unfortunately low, basically because of insufficient or lack of awareness, of means and of national or regional capacity
Another major issue increasingly faced by the Codex is the critical problem of scientific uncertainty. Codex deliberations can only operate on the hypothesis that best fits the facts available at any given time, which are presently insufficient for several safety issues. To deal with the uncertainty, some countries advocate the precautionary principle: "Where there are threats, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent the damage". However, any precautionary measure taken should be accompanied by a search for greater scientific certainty, and periodic evaluation of the measures in light of new evidence. In practice, a choice between the search for scientific certainty or the implementation of the precautionary principle often leads to balancing the risks of inaction with the costs of action, in light of the available evidence at that time.