Public Citizen Condemns WTO Attack on U.S. Dolphin Protection Efforts

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Public Citizen Condemns WTO Attack on U.S. Dolphin Protection Efforts

In Final Appeals Ruling, Global Commerce Agency Orders U.S. to Drop, Change Dolphin-Safe Tuna Labels

WASHINGTON - The World Trade Organization’s (WTO) final ruling today against U.S. dolphin-safe labels on tuna cans deals a major blow to consumers’ ability to make free and informed decisions about how our food was caught and processed, Public Citizen said. This is the third time the WTO and its predecessor General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade have ruled against America’s dolphin protection policies.

“Today’s ruling makes very real the threats these overreaching pacts pose, which have little to do with traditional trade issues. The first round of this case in 1991 became known to environmental activists as ‘GATTzilla Kills Flipper’ and ignited U.S. public opposition to what would become the WTO,” said Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch. “Until that first ruling, and then a second one several years later, all we could do was point out worrisome negotiating text that we thought could undermine vital domestic environmental and other public interest policies – and then, suddenly, we had the proverbial smoking dolphin.”

Dolphin-safe tuna labels are strictly voluntary. If Mexican fleets chose to use dolphin-safe tuna-fishing methods, they would have access to the label, just like fish caught by U.S., Ecuadorean and other nations’ fleets. Mexico wanted access to the label without meeting the standards.

“This latest ruling makes truth-in-labeling the latest casualty of so-called ‘trade’ pacts, which are more about pushing deregulation than actual trade,” said Todd Tucker, research director for Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch. “Members of Congress and the public will be very concerned that even voluntary standards can be deemed trade barriers.”

The Obama administration is considering expanding some of these anti-consumer rules in the first trade deal it is negotiating – the nine-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership.

“This case underscores why countries must insist that WTO rules be altered and that no new agreements use the same corporate backdoor deregulation model,” said Wallach. “The Obama administration must stand with the thousands of Americans who have signed a Consumer Rights Pledge calling on the U.S. to not comply with these illegitimate trade pact rulings and to stop the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade negotiations that would greatly intensify this problem.”

This latest WTO ruling, along with two others in the past year against U.S. country-of-origin labels on meat and flavored cigarette bans, shows that a new approach to trade policy is needed – one that puts consumers, the environment and communities first, said Public Citizen.


In September 2011, a WTO panel of three lawyers and diplomats from Chile, Singapore and Switzerland ruled that the U.S. dolphin-safe tuna labeling law violates WTO rules. The labels have been enormously successful in reducing dolphin deaths by tuna fishers – a major problem in the past, when tuna fleets set upon dolphins to catch tuna, since the two species associate with one another in the Eastern Pacific Ocean. The label allows consumers to “vote with their dollars” for dolphin-safe methods. Mexico successfully challenged the U.S. standard after decades of refusing to transition its fishing fleet to more dolphin-safe fishing methods.

Because Mexico prevailed on some counts but lost on others, both Mexico and the U.S. appealed the lower panel decision. 

Today’s Appellate Body ruling flipped the findings of the lower panel ruling. The lower panel found that the dolphin-safe labels were “more trade-restrictive than necessary to fulfil a legitimate objective.” While this finding was problematic, the lower panel at least acknowledged that the U.S. objectives of consumer information and dolphin protection were legitimate.

“The Appellate Body went in an even more anti-environment, anti-consumer direction by claiming that these labels – which regulate imported and domestic tuna alike, and for which many foreign nations’ tuna qualifies – were discriminatory against Mexico,” said Tucker.

This follows on a deeply troubling ruling from last month that found that a U.S. ban on sweet flavored cigarettes that applies to imported and domestic cigarettes also is somehow “discriminatory.”

“In essence, the WTO has found that voluntary is the new mandatory, and non-discriminatory is the new discriminatory,” added Tucker.


Public Citizen is a national, nonprofit consumer advocacy organization founded in 1971 to represent consumer interests in Congress, the executive branch and the courts.

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