International context

Page last updated: 10 February 2023

The food laws in our joint system that have been created to keep our food safe are complex. Understanding our joint system means understanding a little about the international context we operate in. Australia and New Zealand must meet the obligations of international conventions and agreements.

WTO agreements

The most important agreements Australia and New Zealand have signed in this international framework are those enforced by the World Trade Organization (WTO) — namely the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and a series of more specific follow-up agreements. Australia and New Zealand are signatories to the WTO agreements, which set the international trading rules and the international standards that must be followed by our food laws.
The WTO arrangements promote international trade, reduce trade barriers and impose obligations on all countries who sign up to them. They also apply to all legislation that affects international trade, including food laws. The WTO requirement for countries to facilitate international trade is not absolute and there are exceptions made under the GATT and follow-up agreements which allow countries to adopt and enforce measures necessary to protect public morals and/or protect human, animal or plant life, and/or to prevent deceptive practices.

Many of these exceptions allowed by the WTO are further spelt out in the other agreements under the WTO umbrella. For example, the Agreement on Rules of Origin (RO) tries to ensure that country-of-origin requirements do not restrict, distort or disrupt international trade and are applied without discrimination across countries on a consistent, uniform and impartial basis.

The Agreement of the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS), and the Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT), allow countries to impose requirements on international trade (if necessary) to protect humans, animals or plant life or health. Both agreements contain obligations to ensure that countries do not take actions to restrict trade more than necessary to achieve a legitimate objective. Both the SPS, and to a more limited extent the TBT, require scientific principles to justify any measures affecting international trade. These principles are found in the international standards, guidelines and recommendations.

The Codex Alimentarius

The Codex Alimentarius (the Codex) is supervised by the Codex Commission, which is responsible to the WHO and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The Codex Commission’s primary focus it to protect consumer health, ensure fair trading practices, and promote the coordination of international food standards. The Codex is a highly significant influence on global food laws and is also important in settlement of WTO disputes (domestic standards which comply with the Codex are more likely to comply with WTO expectations).

The standards, guidelines and codes of practice set out in the Codex for foods, food safety and hygiene, contaminants and residues, cover a wide field of food regulation.

This complex web of international standards and obligations allows national flexibility in making food laws, provided that any national regulations that might impact on international trade are applied uniformly to local and imported products alike. It is also important the standards created are based on legitimate reasons drawn from the various international treaties, and are justifiable and proportionate to the compliance burden they create for international trade.

The international rules recognise the right of countries to preserve human, animal and plant health and to pursue legitimate goals such as the protection of consumers against deceptive practices. Good scientific evidence should be used to justify any burden on international trade and controls based on an international standard (notably the Codex) will strengthen the argument that the burden is justified and not in breach of WTO rules.

Codex Australia is responsible for Australia’s input to Codex work. Codex Australia’s consultative processes provide the avenue for all stakeholders to provide input to and consider policy, technical and strategic issues relating to Australia’s role in Codex.

Through its input to the work of Codex, Australia supports the pre-eminence of science in standards development as fundamental to ensuring the safety of the food supply and recognises the importance of using science to validate food standards. Whilst recognising the role of science, food standards should also be evidence-based. Consumer perceptions, attitudes, intentions and behaviours are also an essential element in the process.

In this section

    The World Health Organization (WHO) is a specialized agency of the United Nations that is concerned with international public health.

    The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is an agency of the United Nations that leads international efforts to defeat hunger. Serving both developed and developing countries, FAO acts as a neutral forum where all nations meet as equals to negotiate agreements and debate policy. FAO is also a source of knowledge and information, and helps developing countries and countries in transition modernize and improve agriculture, forestry and fisheries practices, ensuring good nutrition and food security for all.
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