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Technical barriers to trade: formal meeting

WTO members, meeting as the Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT) Committee on 29–31 October 2013, examined in some detail the latest thinking on a set of issues that many of them see as a major obstacle to trade — how to make it easier for products to be certified as meeting required standards, and how special efforts can be made for developing countries.

The committee, which also monitors the implementation of the TBT Agreement by discussing specific trade concerns, this time heard a near-record 51 concerns. Once more, the environment and health featured heavily in the discussions, the topics ranging from sustainability criteria for biofuels to tobacco products, food and alcohol labelling, genetically modified organisms, medical devices and telecommunications.

Much of the discussion on specific trade concerns is based on information that members share with each other on their technical requirements for goods sold on their markets, including imports, as set out in regulations and standards — they do this by notifying the WTO. In order to improve the way members share information, the Secretariat announced the launch of an online system — the TBT Notification Submission System — designed to speed up the process.

The day-long informal meeting was the latest in a series of sessions concentrating on specific issues — “thematic sessions” — launched a year ago.. These sessions help the committee focus on work that lays the proper foundation for preventing trade concerns from arising between members in the first place.

Streamlining the processes for ensuring that products meet required standards can substantially reduce costs and time to market for such products, the committee heard. One delegation said it has found that accreditation can halve the time needed for a product to reach the market, and slash associated costs by 80%.

The key is to have products certified before they leave the exporting country, according to agreed standards and by accredited bodies, and even more so if the certification is recognized internationally. This is summed up in the slogans of two related organizations that provide international arrangements in this area. The International Accreditation Forum (IAF)’s is: “Certified Once Accepted Everywhere”. The International Laboratory Accreditation Cooperation (ILAC) has a similar slogan. Both presented their work to the meeting.

But there are a number of obstacles to achieving this for the full range of traded products and in all countries, with developing countries particularly handicapped. They face difficulties in meeting the standards needed for their goods and services to be certified, and for their laboratories and inspection services to be accredited as having sufficient technical competence and thus providing confidence for trade.

Members provided several insights into the complex set of processes involved when deciding what type of “conformity assessment” procedure to use in different situations. Some WTO members said the type of assessment that their authorities apply depends on the risk involved.

If failing to comply bears a low risk with little damage, then producers are often allowed to declare for themselves that their products meet the standards; but where there is a risk of death or serious injury, importing countries require third-party certification, presenters said.