WTO Cans U.S. Tuna Labeling Standards

The U.S. Department of Commerce may have to can the “Dolphin Safe” tuna labeling program. Currently, for tuna sold in the United States be considered “dolphin safe,” fishermen cannot use certain nets and methods to catch the fish. On Wednesday, however, a WTO appeals panel held that the rules are discriminatory toward Mexican tuna producers, reversing an earlier decision.

An original WTO decision held that U.S. labeling standards were overly restrictive, but not discriminatory. On appeal, however, the WTO reversed—holding instead that the labeling standards are not overly restrictive, but do in fact discriminate against Mexican producers. The panel was unconvinced that the forbidden method of encircling tuna with large “purse seine” nets was actually more dangerous to dolphins than methods employed in the United States. The appeals body balanced the interests of the Mexican fishing industry against the United States’ interests in protecting dolphins. The report concludes that the labeling standards benefit dolphins less than they harm Mexican fishermen. As a result, Mexico can impose commercial sanctions if the U.S. does not change the rules to comply with the WTO report.

The Office of the United States Trade Representative was disappointed in the outcome. A spokesperson for the USTR bemoaned the effect the ruling would have on consumers’ ability to make informed decision about the food they purchase. USTR has not addressed how or if the U.S. plans to comply with the ruling.

The Economic Ministry of Mexico celebrated the potential positive effects that the ruling will have on the Mexican fishing industry. Mexican officials also noted that sanctions would likely follow if the U.S. did not implement the recommendations made in the report.

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