Sanitary and phytosanitary measures

SPS measures are applied to protect human, animal and plant life or health from risks arising from the introduction and spread of pests and diseases and from risks arising from additives, toxins and contaminants in foods and feedstuffs.

SPS measures are subject to rules set under the World Trade Organization (WTO). In particular, the use of SPS measures is governed by the provisions of the WTO Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (the SPS Agreement).

The Department of Agriculture's Trade and Market Access Division is responsible, in partnership with other state and federal government agencies, for representing Australia's SPS interests in the international arena.

The SPS Agreement
International standard setting bodies
Risk assessment
Transparency and SPS notifications
The Australian SPS contact point
Technical assistance
Dispute settlement
The SPS Committee
Australian SPS policy development
Participation in developing international SPS policy
Additional SPS information

The SPS Agreement

The SPS Agreement provides a framework of rules to guide WTO Member countries in the development, adoption and enforcement of sanitary (human and animal health) and phytosanitary (plant health) measures.

All WTO Member countries are signatories to the SPS Agreement, under which they have both rights and obligations. The SPS Agreement provides WTO Member countries with the right to use SPS measures to protect human, animal and plant life or health. Each WTO Member country is entitled to maintain a level of protection it considers appropriate to protect life or health within its territory. This is called the appropriate level of protection (ALOP).

The SPS Agreement applies to all SPS measures which may directly or indirectly affect international trade. The right to adopt SPS measures is accompanied by obligations aimed at minimizing 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 life or health and not be more trade restrictive than required
  • be based on scientific principles and not maintained without sufficient scientific evidence, and
  • not constitute arbitrary or unjustifiable treatment or a disguised restriction on trade.

The SPS Agreement contains 14 articles covering various human, animal and plant health considerations that arise from international trade, including, inter alia:

  • the use of international standards (harmonisation)
  • risk assessment
  • transparency
  • technical assistance for developing countries
  • dispute settlement

For a more detailed understanding of the SPS Agreement see Sanitary and phytosanitary measures in the WTO Agreements Series or Understanding the WTO Agreement on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures, on the WTO website.

International Standard setting bodies

The SPS Agreement encourages WTO Member countries to harmonize their measures by basing SPS measures on agreed international standards. These international standards are set by organisations known as the 'three sisters'. The 'three sisters' develop international standards, recommendations and guidelines for plant and animal health and food safety. They are:

Risk assessment

Where relevant international standards do not exist or a WTO Member country wishes to maintain a higher level of protection than provided by an international standard, Member countries must 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).

Transparency and SPS notifications

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.

SPS 'notifications' are posted on the WTO website to inform other WTO Member countries of changes to SPS measures that may have a significant effect on trade. Recently submitted Australian notifications can be found on the website at Market Access News.

To enhance transparency, WTO Member countries 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.

The Australian SPS contact point

In Australia, both the NNA and NEP functions are performed by a single administrative role; the Australian SPS contact point. The Australian SPS contact point is located in the department's Trade and Market Access Division. The functions of the Australian SPS contact point include:

  • distributing SPS notifications to interested stakeholders within Australia
  • obtaining further details on other countries SPS notifications
  • sending Australian SPS notifications to the WTO for publication on their website, and
  • coordinating Australian comments on other WTO Member countries SPS notifications.

Interested stakeholders may register with the Australian SPS contact point.

Contact details for the Australian SPS contact point are:

Australian SPS Contact Point
Trade and Market Access Division
Department of Agriculture
GPO Box 858
Canberra ACT 2601
Email: SPS Contact

Technical assistance

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, available on the WTO website.

Information on the department's agricultural technical assistance and cooperation programs:

Dispute settlement

The WTO provides a legally binding dispute settlement system to ensure that Member countries meet their obligations. Other WTO Members can challenge SPS measures on the grounds that the measures do not comply with the importing country's obligations under the SPS Agreement.

The SPS Committee

The Committee on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS Committee) oversees the implementation of the SPS Agreement and provides a forum for discussion of animal and plant health and food safety measures affecting trade.

The SPS Committee meets three times a year at WTO headquarters in Geneva. It provides a forum for all WTO Member countries to discuss the implementation of the SPS Agreement, including sharing their experiences, raising concerns about other Member countries activities and developing further guidance on implementing the SPS Agreement. Australia plays an active role in the SPS Committee.

Australian SPS policy development

Australia invests heavily in maintaining its biosecurity system across a pre-border, border and post-border continuum. Australia's import conditions that include SPS measures are based on science and aim to reduce the risk of exotic pests and diseases to a level acceptable to Australia.

The department conducts science-based risk assessments, including import risk analyses conducted under a regulated process, and develops recommendations on import conditions that would meet Australia's ALOP.  See the IRA handbook for the department's procedures and methods for assessing risks.

Once import conditions are established, the Department of Agriculture is responsible for ensuring that these import conditions are met.

Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) is a bi-national, independent statutory authority that develops food standards, and joint codes of practice with industry, covering the content and labeling of food sold in Australia and New Zealand. All domestic and imported food products marketed in Australia must comply with relevant food standards as regulated in the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code.

Participation in developing international SPS policy

The department and Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) work together to coordinate Australian input to international SPS policy and influence its development through active participation in the SPS Committee and the 'three sister' International Standard Setting Bodies (IPPC, OIE and Codex).

Australia's contribution to the 'three sisters' is coordinated through the Department's Biosecurity Services Group:

Additional SPS information

The WTO SPS gateway provides direct links to all information provided by the WTO that is relevant to the SPS Agreement.

The department provides advice on importing food and animal and plant products into Australia, including information on policies for importing animal and plant products into Australia via its online Import Conditions Database (ICON).

Last reviewed:
10 Dec 2013