U.S. Loses WTO Appeal in Dolphin-Safe Tuna Case


Prior to our membership in the WTO, the U.S. government, businesses and consumers were able to dictate what sort of labels they found on their food. This is no longer the case, as the WTO has ruled that the “dolphin-safe” labels that adorn tuna cans in the United States represent a barrier to trade. The U.S. appealed this ruling, but it should come as no surprise that the WTO has upheld its previous ruling on the case, leaving the United States open to sanctions if it continues to use these labels.

Mexico brought a claim against the United States in 2008, claiming that the “dolphin-safe” labels were discriminatory and unnecessary. The U.S. argued that the requirements did not restrict access to the U.S. market, and that there are tuna products sold in the United States that are not labeled as dolphin safe. Regardless of this argument, the WTO panel ruled that the United States’ requirements were too restrictive because Mexico had shown an example of a less restrictive alternative. Because this ruling was upheld, the U.S. must either change its standards to comply with the WTO ruling or face sanctioned retaliatory action from the complainants.

“Weakening this label could have significant consequences for dolphin populations, for consumers that have come to trust and rely on the Dolphin-Safe label, and for other U.S. labeling requirements that provide consumers with important product information,” Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA)  previously said in a letter to U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk.

This is not the only WTO case on food labeling the United States has lost. U.S. Country of Origin Labeling laws (COOL) have also come under attack, with the WTO finding that these laws were not in compliance with WTO rules. These labels were intended to help Americans make informed choices about the food that they buy, and by ruling against them the WTO has hurt the United States both from financial and health perspectives.

Losing a case in the WTO is all too common for the United States. You can see a summary of all the cases the United States has lost here.

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