Agricultural Exports:

U.S. Needs a More Integrated Approach to Address Sanitary/Phytosanitary Issues

NSIAD-98-32: Published: Dec 11, 1997. Publicly Released: Jan 16, 1998.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information on the: (1) extent to which foreign sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) measures may unfairly restrict U.S. agricultural exports; and (2) federal structure and approach for addressing such measures.

GAO noted that: (1) despite growing concerns that certain foreign sanitary or phytosanitary measures may be inconsistent with World Trade Organization (WTO) provisions and may unfairly impede the flow of agricultural trade, the U.S. government is not well positioned to address this issue; (2) agricultural trade associations and key government officials have identified such measures as an increasingly important issue in agricultural trade; (3) however, the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) and the Department of Agriculture (USDA) have had difficulty defining the nature and scope of the problem that foreign sanitary and phytosanitary measures present for U.S. exports, partly because of the complex nature of the issue but for other reasons as well; (4) the available data indicate that foreign sanitary and phytosanitary measures affect the exports of a broad range of commodities, result in a variety of trade effects, and may create additional costs for the U.S. industry and government; (5) the U.S. government approach for addressing foreign sanitary and phytosanitary measures has been evolving in the 2 years since WTO provisions on sanitary and phytosanitary measures took effect; (6) however, the current approach exhibits certain weaknesses; (7) the federal structure for addressing foreign sanitary and phytosanitary measures is complex; (8) at least 12 federal trade, regulatory, and research entities have some responsibility for addressing such measures, but no one entity is directing and coordinating overall federal efforts; (9) some entities' roles and responsibilities for addressing such measures are not clearly defined, and these entities have had difficulty coordinating their activities; (10) federal entities lack comprehensive data on which sanitary and phytosanitary measures are being addressed or what progress has been made to address them; (11) they have not developed a process to jointly evaluate measures and determine which ones the government should address, and in what order; (12) once the government decides to challenge a measure, multiple entities with conflicting viewpoints have made it difficult to develop a unified approach to address measures and decide which cases should be referred to WTO for dispute resolution; and (13) coordinated goals, objectives, and performance measures related to federal efforts to address SPS measures do not yet exist.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: To improve interagency coordination, USTR and the Secretary of Agriculture formed a senior-level steering group to address foreign SPS trade issues that unfairly restrict U.S. agricultural exports. The group coordinates broad policy guidance on priority foreign SPS measures that are inconsistent with international trade rules and have substantial policy and trade implications for agricultural exports. Also, USTR has helped USDA develop a survey instrument to collect information about SPS complaints. An interagency staff-level group that is chaired by USTR is developing goals, objectives, and performance measures for addressing trade-related SPS issues, is identifying public SPS contact points, and is developing a methodology for evaluating SPS issues brought to its attention. USTR is also working with other relevant agencies to educate public and private stakeholders about U.S. and foreign obligations to comply with international trade rules regarding SPS measures.

    Recommendation: The U.S. Trade Representative and the Secretary of Agriculture, in consultation with the Commissioner of Food and Drugs, the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Secretary of State--or their designees--should work together to develop coordinated goals, objectives, and performance measurements for addressing foreign SPS measures that appear to be inconsistent with the WTO SPS agreement. The Government Performance and Results Act and implementing guidance provide a framework for federal agencies to consult on such cross-cutting programs.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of the U.S. Trade Representative

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: To improve coordination within USDA, the Secretary of Agriculture established a Policy-Level Group on Technical Barriers to Trade among the relevant USDA agency administrators. The group focuses on improving overall policy coordination and issue management within USDA and serves as USDA's point of reference for coordinating relevant trade policy issues with agencies outside of USDA. USDA has worked with relevant agencies outside USDA to develop a survey instrument to collect common and comprehensive information about SPS complaints. USDA has reviewed options for improving its information management of data on SPS and related trade issues. Finally, USDA continues to examine ways to better distribute available information about SPS issues and improve the transparency of its evaluation and prioritization process by integrating U.S. industry viewpoints into the process. It has initiated action to share information from the Interagency Working Group on SPS issues with the private sector.

    Recommendation: Given USDA's substantial role in identifying and addressing SPS measures, the Secretary of Agriculture should: (1) develop centralized, aggregated data on the number of SPS measures that have been identified, which ones are being addressed, and which ones have been resolved; and (2) establish a more systematic process by which USDA entities evaluate complaints they receive about SPS measures, determine which ones they should address, prioritize their efforts, develop unified approaches, and determine when to recommend consideration of dispute settlement procedures to USTR. This process should be developed and implemented in consultation with the U.S. Trade Representative, the Commissioner of Food and Drugs, the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Secretary of State, or their designees.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture


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