Australians Get Their First Taste of New Zealand Apples in Ninety Years
The Australian government has finally ended a hotly-contested ninety-year ban on imports of apples from New Zealandâa move dictated by the reports in the WTO dispute (Australia - Measures Affecting the Importation of Apples from New Zealand (âAustraliaâApplesâ)). In its report, the Appellate Body (âABâ) clarified the sensitive issue of how WTO dispute settlement panels should balance deference and thoroughness in reviewing governmentsâ risk assessments.
The WTO Agreement on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (âSPS Agreementâ) requires WTO members to perform risk assessments whenever they introduce sanitary or phytosanitary (âSPSâ) measures. In WTO disputes over SPS measures, the adequacy of the risk assessment is usually a central issue. The standard of review is a pivotal concern in applying the SPS Agreement to government actions. An overly deferential standard may let members engage in protectionism under the guise of safetyâbut an overly strict standard could lead WTO panels and the AB to substitute their own judgment for what should be decisions left to domestic policymakers.
Australia banned apple imports from New Zealand beginning in 1921, following a determination in 1919 that fire blight (a plant disease) had become established in New Zealand. New Zealand and Australia have historically had a strong and dispute-free trading relationship, entering into the comprehensive Australia New Zealand Closer Economic Agreement in 1983. Nonetheless, New Zealandâs repeated requests to export apples between 1986 and 1995 were all rejected. In 1999, New Zealand again applied for access to the Australian apple market, and the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (âAQISâ) initiated an import risk analysis (âIRAâ) in February 1999. In the seven years that followed, Biosecurity Australia was separated from AQIS; it issued three draft risk assessments; and the AB also issued its report in the JapanâMeasures Affecting the Importation of Apples case (which also addressed SPS measures designed to prevent the entry, establishment, or spread of fire blightâin that instance from United States apples).
In November 2006, Biosecurity Australia issued its final IRA, which recommended a series of risk management measures directed at fire blight and other plant diseases and pests. In March 2007, Australiaâs Director of Animal and Plant Quarantine determined that import permits for New Zealand apples could be issued subject to, inter alia, the application of the SPS measures identified in the final IRA. The IRA required quarantine measures similar to those struck down in the earlier U.S.-Japan dispute. This was the last straw for New Zealand, which finally initiated its first WTO or GATT dispute against Australia.
Although New Zealand and Australia are relatively close geographically, their climatic conditions and apple industries differ. New Zealand currently exports sixty percent of its apple crop to over seventy countries, but Australia grows apples primarily for its domestic market; only about three percent of the industryâs revenue comes from exports.
One might wonder why Australia fought this issue so hard, and why New Zealand chose to challenge its closest ally over this particular issue. The amount of trade at stake is small. The New Zealand industry forecasts apple exports to Australia could grow to NZ $21.7 million/year (US $18 million, or five percent of its total apple exports). But when deciding whether to bring WTO disputes, New Zealand considers both immediate market access needs and broader systemic implications, including New Zealandâs interest as a major agricultural exporter, in ensuring SPS measures are not a disguised form of protectionism.
Meanwhile, the issue became enormously politicized within Australia, whose apple industry had been entirely protected from foreign competition until late 2010 when Australia imported Chinese apples for the first time. While many government officials privately admitted the import ban was unjustified, strong pressure from the domestic industry meant that an external mandate, such as an adverse WTO ruling, would be necessary to effect change.
Many predicted an easy win for New Zealand because of the similarity to the JapanâApples dispute in which the AB found no scientific evidence that fire blight could be spread by mature, symptomless apples (the product New Zealand sought to export to Australia). Yet there were two reasons for caution. First, Australiaâs measures related also to another disease, European Canker, and to a pestâapple leafcurling midge. Second, since the JapanâApples case, the AB had taken a more deferential view of the standard of review for risk assessments conducted under the SPS Agreementâand Australia had proposed an interpretation that would have shielded from scrutiny much of its risk assessment process.
New Zealand challenged seventeen of Australiaâs proposed quarantine measures (eight for fire blight; five for European Canker; one for apple leafcurling midge; and three general measures applying to all pests examined in the IRA). Broadly agreeing with New Zealand, the panel found the specific quarantine measures and the general measures violated Articles 5.1 and 5.2 (and consequently Article 2.2) of the SPS Agreement; it also agreed with New Zealandâs claim under Article 5.6 relating to the specific measures regarding fire blight, European canker, and apple leafcurling midge.
After Australia appealed, the AB upheld the findings on the Articles 5.1, 5.2, and 2.2 issues, but reversed part of the panelâs analysis under Article 5.6.
The Appellate Body Report
The AB report is of particular interest because the AB clarified the rulings it made in Canada/United StatesâContinued Suspension of Obligations in the ECâHormones Dispute (âU.S./CanadaâContinued Suspensionâ) on the standard of review for panels determining whether a measure is consistent with Article 5.1. The remainder of this Insight focuses on this issue.
Standard of Review under Article 5.1 of the SPS Agreement
Article 5.1 provides that in conducting a risk assessment, âMembers shall take into account available scientific evidence; relevant processes and production methods; relevant inspection, sampling and testing methods; prevalence of specific diseases or pests; existence of pest- or disease-free areas; relevant ecological and environmental conditions; and quarantine or other treatment.â Thus a risk assessment requires a connection between scientific evidence and the measure applied. This seemingly simple requirement has been the subject of much discussion and debate. As noted above, the method of scrutinizing the relationship between the measure and the available science can lead to overly intrusive results if too stringent, but unfettered protectionism if too lenient.
In U.S./CanadaâContinued Suspension, the AB laid out the standard of review for reviewing domestic risk assessments pursuant to Article 5.1, stating: âthe review power of a panel is not to determine whether the risk assessment undertaken by a WTO Member is correct, but rather to determine whether that risk assessment is supported by coherent reasoning and respectable scientific evidence and is, in this sense, objectively justifiable.â In addition, â[a] panel should also assess whether the reasoning articulated on the basis of the scientific evidence is objective and coherent.â Australia argued that this interpretation meant that the panel could not apply the standard of objectivity and coherence to the quality of the reasoning found in the IRAâs interim determinations, only to the ultimate conclusions reached in the IRA.â
The AB began by restating its findings in U.S./CanadaâContinued Suspension that a panel has two primary tasks in reviewing a risk assessment pursuant to Article 5.1:
(i) a determination that the scientific basis of the risk assessment comes from a respected and qualified source and can accordingly be considered âlegitimate scienceâ according to the standards of the relevant scientific community; and (ii) a determination that the reasoning of the risk assessor is objective and coherent and that, therefore, its conclusions find sufficient support in the underlying scientific basis.
The AB also emphasized that this analysis âis centred on the notion that the risk assessment should be evaluated in the light of the scientific evidence on which it relies.â
The panelâs determination of the scientific basis for the risk assessment was not appealed. Accordingly, the AB focused on the second element of this test, and in particular whether the panel erred in scrutinizing the IRAâs intermediate reasoning and findings for objectivity and coherence. The AB rejected Australiaâs argument that the panel should only have reviewed whether the IRAâs intermediate conclusions fell âwithin a range considered legitimate by the scientific community.â It noted that Australia was effectively arguing that panels should use the same methodology to evaluate both the scientific evidence used and the reasoning and conclusions of the risk assessor.
The AB referred to its statement in U.S./CanadaâContinued Suspension that âa panel is not well suited to conduct scientific research and assessments itself, and should not substitute its judgement for that of a risk assessor.â It noted that
whether the requisite rational or objective relationship exists can only be ascertained through the examination of how the scientific evidence is used and relied upon to reach particular conclusions. In this respect, the reasoning employed by the risk assessor plays an important role in revealing whether or not such a relationship exists.
The AB further rejected the suggestion that this formulation only applies to final conclusions of the risk assessor, stating that
it is not possible to review the ultimate conclusions reached by the risk assessor in isolation from the reasoning and the intermediate conclusions that lead up to them. A panel needs to understand how certain conclusions were reached and their relationship with the underlying scientific basis in order to be in a position to assess whether the requisite objective and rational relationships between the science, the risk assessment, and the resulting SPS measures exist.
This was particularly the case here, where the IRA contained numerous intermediate findings and conclusions, and where the ultimate conclusions were not accompanied by separate reasoning.
The ABâs Article 5.1 analysis suggests less deference than some commentators read into the U.S./CanadaâContinued Suspension report. Although the AB did not revisit the standard of review to be applied in determining whether the scientific basis for the risk assessment is âlegitimate science,â the report implies deference is due in this context because panels are ânot well suited to conduct[ing] scientific research.â With respect to the panelâs determination of whether the reasoning of a risk assessor is objective and coherent, however, the ABâs decision seems to indicate that panels must undertake a fairly detailed review of many aspects of the risk assessorâs decision-making, in particular by scrutinizing the logic and reasoning used throughout the risk assessment process. Thus, the AB appears to be applying a higher degree of deference when scrutinizing the scientific basis for the risk assessment than to the determination of whether the reasoning of the risk assessor is objective and coherent.
The ABâs guidance on the standard of review clarifies that the deference expressed in U.S./CanadaâContinued Suspension is predicated on a panelâs need to review scientific evidenceâbecause this is not the panelâs area of expertiseâand on the fact that a panel is reviewing decisions of Membersâ authorities. However, it also suggested that a panel should undertake a detailed review and assessment of the authoritiesâ logic and reasoning. Thus, the AB appears to have signaled that its U.S./CanadaâContinued Suspension formulation should neither be interpreted too broadly nor out of context.
Following the ABâs report, the parties agreed on a compliance deadline of August 17, 2011. Biosecurity Australia subsequently reviewed its quarantine policy and released final measures on August 17 establishing quarantine requirements for New Zealand apple imports,  and initial small shipments of New Zealand apples have arrived in Australia. More significant volumes of New Zealand apples will not be exported until April, following the next harvest. The dispute may not be over, however. At the September 2 meeting of the WTO Dispute Settlement Body, New Zealand indicated that Australiaâs requirements are excessive and therefore âquestioned whether Australia had fully complied with the DSB ruling.â While New Zealand appears willing for now to accede to Australiaâs requirements, it expressed further concern about a proposed Private Members Bill in Australia to prevent New Zealand apple imports and about statements from some Australian states that they would refuse to allow entry of New Zealand apples. It remains to be seen whether the federal government can successfully quell these opposition efforts.
About the Author:
Meredith Kolsky Lewis, an ASIL member, is Senior Lecturer and Associate Director of the New Zealand Centre of International Economic Law at the Victoria University of Wellington Law School in Wellington, New Zealand. She is also a founding member and co-Executive Vice President of the Society of International Economic Law.